China’s Wet Markets Up & Running Again; Is Beijing In Breach Of International Laws? OpEd

What are the wet markets in China that seem to be jeopardizing the global health? While we are witnessing an alarming rise in the cases of COVID-19 worldwide, the suspected epicenter of the pandemic is back on track – the wet market of animals in China.

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Amongst all floating theories revolving around the genesis of COVID 19, the discovery of patient zero from Wuhan, who happens to be a prawn and seafood seller is an indication of China’s lack of determination to judiciously regulate the wet animal markets.

One cannot totally ignore the role of China’s wet market with respect to the ongoing global pandemic. The recent case of an infected tiger from Bronx Zoo startled several countries and their respective zoo authorities. With every day passing by, the world is mutually learning about this virus.

Although several theories and counter theories are all over the news, one must wonder, why the deadly virus emerged from China?

For that, one should also consider referring to its wildlife trade practices. After the scourge of Great Chinese Famine between the years of 1959 and 1961, the entire country shifted its gear to accelerate growth and alleviate poverty.

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The greatest famine took around 45 million human lives. A horrific and misguided food procurement policy was held responsible for the same. The post effects were quite apparent even till the late 1970s when around 30% of the Chinese population was malnourished.

In order to address these issues, the Chinese government adopted several law and policy measures. Peoples Republic of China’s Protection of Wildlife Act 1988 was one of them. The said legislation recognized the rational utilization of wildlife resources. A lot of viruses that make humans sick actually originates from animals.

There are some evidences which suggest that the said category of Coronavirus might have originated from a bat to a pangolin before infecting a human. It takes a long way for a deadly virus of this nature to reach humans.

However, it is a lot easier if a medium is provided for such transmission. That is where the Wet Animal Market of Wuhan comes into play, where live animals were slaughtered and sold for human consumption.

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The cages of several wildlife animals were stacked over one another and the animals which were at the bottom of those stacks were soaked with all kinds of liquids such as pus, excreta and blood flowing from the animals placed right above them.

This is how it was easy for a virus to jump from one animal to another and if human consumes that animal then the virus could potentially infect them as well, leading to an outbreak. The Wuhan Live Animal Market covered a wide range of animals for human consumption, including wildlife animals.

This is due to the decades-old Wildlife Protection Act of 1988. During the late 70s, the then regime decided to give up the absolute control over the regulation of food production and allowed private farming.

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This lead to the emergence of major agricultural companies as well as small farmers engaged in catching and raising wild animals for livelihood. Initially, the farmers and poor peasants started raising turtles in their backyards. In order to meet the need for sustenance and alleviate poverty, the then Chinese government allowed it.

Thereafter the Wildlife Protection Act of 1988 declared wildlife animals as resources of the state. The designation of wildlife as a natural resource had promoted its utilization for human consumption. The given law in-fact went to the extent of encouraging domestication of wild animals.

This gave birth to the wildlife farming industry. Gradually, small scale local farms turned into industry sized large scale operations. The farmers also started raising a wide variety of wildlife species in their respective establishments. This raised the chances of cross-species transmission of the virus.

These animals were furthered funneled into the wet markets like the one in Wuhan province, for profit. Along with this legal wildlife farming industry, a parallel illegal wildlife industry started booming, which in furtherance gave birth to transboundary wildlife trafficking and other related wildlife crimes.

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The first major occurrence was in the early 2000s when the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus took several lives. It was traced back to the wet market of Guangdong province of China. Thereafter, the prohibition was imposed on wildlife farming of civet cats.

However, the ban was lifted soon in a couple of months because the wildlife farming industry was contributing enormously to China’s GDP due to its lobbying capability. Due to this influence, the Chinese government allowed wildlife farming industry to keep flourishing.

In 2016, the government even allowed farming of several endangered species like Pangolin. The industry has been promoting wildlife animal farming by citing several medicinal values such as bodybuilding, immunity and sex enhancement etc.

It is believed that the majority of the Chinese population do not eat wildlife animals but the minority section of the rich and influential population consumes it, putting the interest of the majority population at risk.

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On 24th February 2020, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress of China adopted a decision to a total prohibition on illegal wildlife trade and the elimination of excessive eating of wildlife animals.

However, the said decision doesn’t absolutely ban the utilization of wildlife for consumption as food. Such measures might not be effective unless the Chinese government amends the Wildlife Protection Law by permanently banning wildlife farming. Else history will keep repeating and we might encounter another novel pandemic in the future.

The recent news of re-emergence of wet markets in China is a matter of grave concern and raised deep apprehensions amongst many legislators and researchers across the globe. In the language of international law, one nation cannot be obstructed to utilize its natural resources within its national sovereignty.

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However, the same right to permanent sovereignty over natural resources also imposes a correlative duty to not cause damage to neighboring countries and this is a customary international law principle, not only recognized by the International Court of Justice but also widely accepted by countries across the globe. Now only time will tell if any global pressure will ever force China to reconsider its stance on wildlife trade.

Chiradeep Basak is an Assistant Professor of Law at the National Law University and Judicial Academy- India.