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China

China’s Wildlife Protection Law prohibits the sale, purchase, or use of state-protected wild animals and products made from these animals, but allows the trade and use of “artificially-bred wild animals” if approvals are in place. Wildlife falling outside of the state protection catalog may be legally traded if quarantine certificates and other mandatory licenses and approvals are obtained.

The existing Wildlife Protection Law bans food products made from state-protected wild animals, but not those made from other wild animals. A land wildlife protection regulation prohibits the sale or purchase of state-protected wild animals and products at marketplaces, but allows hunting license holders to sell non-state protected wild animals at certain marketplaces designated by local government authorities.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a fast-track legislative decision was passed on February 24, 2020, banning consumption of any wild land animals as food, including any artificially bred or farmed wild animals. It also bans hunting, trading, or transporting, for the purpose of eating, any land animals that grow and reproduce naturally in the wild. The decision does not ban other uses of wildlife, such as for scientific research, medicine, or exhibition. The Wildlife Protection Law is expected to be revised during 2020.

I. Introduction

Despite the rise of supermarkets since the 1990s, traditional markets[1] where fresh meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, and other perishable goods are sold, known as “wet markets,” have remained the most prevalent food outlet in urban China.[2] Products sold in these markets are considered to be fresher and less expensive than in many supermarkets. According to a domestic industry report released in 2019, about 73% of the fresh produce purchased by Chinese households came from traditional wet markets, 22% from supermarkets, and only about 3% from online grocery stores.[3] In these wet markets, unpackaged meat and live fish and poultry are common, while pigs, lambs, and cows are butchered in special slaughtering factories rather than on site. Many wet markets may be deemed unsanitary, especially in smaller communities, while there are well-managed and hygienic wet markets in and near bigger cities.[4]

Although it is rare for Chinese wet markets to sell exotic animals, the practice has continued in poorly regulated sites, such as the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.[5] There has long been a wildlife-eating culture in certain areas of China. Over the past three decades, consuming exotic foods has become a symbol of social status. In addition, in some of China’s impoverished regions, wildlife farming is an important source of income for people. Furthermore, traditional Chinese medicine has for centuries used various types of wildlife to treat human ailments. Scales of pangolins, for example, are used to treat conditions such as blocked breast ducts, rheumatoid arthritis, and poor blood circulation, despite no scientific evidence of effectiveness.[6] As of 2016, China reportedly had a wildlife breeding industry that was worth an estimated 520 billion yuan (about US$74 billion) and employed more than 14 million people. These animals are used in various sectors, among them fur farming, which has the highest value, followed by food, medicine, tourism/pets, and laboratory research.[7]

II. Wildlife Trade and Consumption

A. Wildlife Protection Law

The primary Chinese legislation on the management and protection of wildlife, the Wildlife Protection Law, was first passed in 1988, substantially revised in 2016, and most recently amended in 2018.[8] In addition to providing wildlife protection, the Law has always permitted the “use” of wildlife as a “resource.”[9] As mentioned above, wildlife may be used for fur farming, medicine, tourism, pets, and laboratory research, in addition to food. As a result, wild animals protected by the Law are limited to (1) rare and endangered wild land and aquatic animals; and (2) wild land animals of important ecological, scientific, and social value (“three-value animals”).[10]

Under the Law, the central government authority maintains a state-protected wild animal catalog, which groups rare and endangered wildlife species into two classes and provides different levels of protection.[11] The pangolin, for example, is a Class II state-protected animal, while the panda is in Class I.[12]

1. Commercial Use of Wildlife

The Wildlife Protection Law prohibits the sale, purchase, or use of state-protected wild animals and products made from these animals, but provincial-level wildlife authorities may otherwise permit such activities for certain purposes, such as scientific research and artificial breeding.[13] Furthermore, the Law establishes a licensing system for the artificial breeding of state-protected wild animals. The central government releases another catalog of such “artificially-bred wild animals” that are allowed to be traded and used if approvals are in place.[14]

Wildlife falling outside of the state protection catalog may be legally traded if quarantine certificates and other required licenses and approvals are in place. First, the Wildlife Protection Law expressly allows the commercial use of non-state protected wild animals, as long as quarantine certificates and proof of legal sources of the wild animals concerned are presented, such as hunting permits or import and export certificates.[15] According to the Land Wildlife Protection Regulation, which was issued in 1992 and most recently revised in 2016, the commercial use of these animals must be registered with the government market authority.[16]

Second, the commercial use of certain wild animals falling outside of the state protection catalog may be subject to local wildlife protection regulations requiring local approvals and may also be subject to quotas limiting the number of animals that may be traded.[17] Many local governments also encourage artificial breeding of non-state protected wild animals but require a local artificial breeding license.[18]

2. Food Products

The Wildlife Protection Law specifically prohibits producing or selling food products made from state-protected wild animals, or from other wild animals without proof of legal sources.[19] In this regard, the Law does not differentiate artificially-bred animals from other wild animals. Therefore, the existing Wildlife Protection Law bans food products made from state-protected wild animals, but not from other wild animals including the “three-value animals.”

3. Wildlife Sold at Wet Markets

The Land Wildlife Protection Regulation contains an article prohibiting the sale or purchase of state-protected wild animals and products made from these animals at marketplaces. The article also states that hunting license holders may sell non-state protected wild animals and products at certain marketplaces designated by local government authorities. [20]

According to the Regulation, wild animals traded at marketplaces are subject to oversight and inspection by the government market authority, while those traded outside of marketplaces are regulated by the government wildlife authority, market authority, or other delegated entities.[21]

B. Recent Ban of Wildlife Consumption

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) passed a fast-track legislative decision on February 24, 2020, the NPCSC Decision on Completely Prohibiting the Illegal Wildlife Trade, Eliminating the Bad Habit of Indiscriminately Eating Wild Animals, and Truly Ensuring the Health and Safety of the People. The NPCSC Decision took effect on the same day.[22]

Significantly, the Decision bans consumption of all wild land animals as food, including the “three-value animals” and artificially bred or farmed wild animals. It also bans hunting, trading, and transporting, for the purpose of eating, any land animals that grow and reproduce naturally in the wild. Punishments for violators will be based on those prescribed in the existing laws.[23] In addition, hunting, trading, transporting, or eating of wild animals that is already prohibited by the Wildlife Protection Law will be subject to harsher punishments than those prescribed by existing laws, according to the Decision.[24]

However, the NPCSC Decision does not ban other uses of wildlife such as for scientific research, medical purposes, or exhibition, but these uses are subject to strict approval processes and quarantine inspections.[25] The Decision also does not prohibit consumption of aquatic wild animals. Any animals included in the catalog of livestock and poultry genetic resources are also not subject to the new ban.[26]

The NPCSC has officially added revisions of the Wildlife Protection Law and the Animal Epidemic Prevention Law to its legislative agenda for 2020.[27]

III. Regulation of Wet Markets

Wet markets are largely regulated by local governments.[28] However, in 2003, the central government’s Ministry of Health issued a regulation on food hygiene at marketplaces, which specifies sanitary requirements for wet markets and subjects wet markets to sanitary inspections by the government health authority.[29] Under the Regulation, areas of wet markets dealing with livestock, poultry, and aquatic products must be separated from other areas by a distance of not less than five meters.[30] Market operators must inspect the quarantine certificates of meat products entering the market on a daily basis.[31]

In addition, under China’s Animal Epidemic Prevention Law, wet markets trading in animals must meet the conditions for animal epidemic prevention laid down by the authorities, and are subject to the supervision and inspection by the government animal health supervision agencies.[32]

IV. Enforcement

Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the central and local governments had tried to regulate wild animal trading at markets, instituting occasional checks to improve sanitation.[33] In reality, however, there are numerous issues with licensing, approvals, quarantine inspection, and law enforcement.[34] The Huanan market, for example, was reportedly inspected by the local market authority in 2019. That inspection identified eight vendors in the market that were legally licensed to trade wild animals, such as tiger frogs, snakes, and hedgehogs. After the outbreak of COVID-19, many illegal operations were revealed at this market, such as vendors lacking proper licenses or official quarantine inspections.[35] Closed on January 1, 2020, the Huanan market appears to have no plan to reopen and its venders have been moved to other seafood markets in Wuhan.[36]

Following the passage of the NPCSC Decision, the National Forestry and Grassland Administration announced on February 26, 2020, that the wildlife authorities at all levels will launch inspections of wildlife breeding sites and commercial use entities and revoke all licenses and approvals for the artificial breeding or commercial use of wild animals for food.[37] On March 2, 2020, the Ministry of Public Security announced that they had investigated 948 criminal cases and 2,147 administrative cases involving the illegal wildlife trade.[38] Recently, the central government indicated that in addition to cracking down on the illegal trade in and consumption of wild animals, the market authority will restrict live poultry trading and on-site slaughtering at markets. Live poultry trading in China’s wet markets will gradually be banned completely, according to an official with the General Administration of Market Supervision.[39]

It remains to be seen, however, whether the new ban and the revised Wildlife Protection Law will be fully enforced after the current pandemic. After the 2003 outbreak of SARS, the central and local governments reportedly tried to tackle the wildlife trade, banning the sale of some wild animals such as civet cats, but many of the bans either weren’t enforced or were quietly removed after the SARS epidemic subsided.[40] As pointed out by a China expert with the Environmental Investigation Agency, the COVID-19 pandemic “has demonstrated in the starkest of terms how no one country’s biodiversity and wildlife trade policies exist in isolation. The link to wildlife trade in China, whether legal or illegal, shows the urgent need for stronger laws and enforcement to close markets for wild animal products.”[41]

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Prepared by Laney Zhang
Foreign Law Specialist
August 2020


[1] 菜市场 (cai shi chang) or 农贸市场 (nong mao shi chang) in Chinese.

[2] Zhong Taiyang et al., The Impact of Proximity to Wet Markets and Supermarkets on Household Dietary Diversity in Nanjing City, China, 10(5) Sustainability 1465 (2018), https://perma.cc/5MH9-HBDT.

[3] Jiang Xuan, Life and Death of Farmers Market, Chinanews.com (Mar. 1, 2020), https://perma.cc/Y6NM-2L88 (in Chinese).

[4] Wuhan Is Returning to Life. So Are Its Disputed Wet Markets, Bloomberg (Apr. 8, 2020), https://perma.cc/MWD7-D3HQ.

[5] Michael Standaert, “Mixed with Prejudice”: Calls for Ban on “Wet” Markets Misguided, Experts Argue, The Guardian (Apr. 15, 2020), https://perma.cc/VR9K-EY22.

[6] Adolfo Arranz & Han Huang, China’s Wildlife Trade, South China Morning Post (Mar. 4, 2020), https://perma.cc/SWJ2-9G5E.

[7] Id.

[8] Wildlife Protection Law (adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on Nov. 8, 1988, last amended Oct. 26, 2018), https://perma.cc/Q7BS-3HAZ (in Chinese).

[9] Id. arts. 3 & 4.

[10] Id. art. 2.

[11] Id. art. 10.

[12] National Forestry and Grassland Administration, Catalog of Wild Animals under State Protection (Jan. 4, 2018), https://perma.cc/5VPW-DU4L (in Chinese).

[13] Wildlife Protection Law art. 27.

[14] Id. art. 28.

[15] Id. art. 27.

[16] Regulation on the Land Wildlife Protection (issued by the Ministry of Forestry on Mar. 1, 1992, revised Feb. 6, 2016) (Land Wildlife Regulation) art. 25, https://perma.cc/4ZJT-ZYAB (in Chinese).

[17] E.g., Jiangsu Province Wildlife Protection Regulation (adopted by the Standing Committee of Jiangsu Province People’s Congress on Sept. 26, 2012, revised Nov. 23, 2018) (Jiangsu Regulation) art. 28, https://perma.cc/6HAW-QWG4 (in Chinese).

[18] Id. art. 27.

[19] Wildlife Protection Law art. 30.

[20] Land Wildlife Regulation art. 26.

[21] Id. art. 27.

[22] Decision on Completely Prohibiting the Illegal Wildlife Trade, Eliminating the Bad Habit of Indiscriminately Eating Wild Animals, and Truly Ensuring the Health and Safety of the People (passed by the NPCSC on Feb. 24, 2020), https://perma.cc/5LQV-AEB5 (in Chinese).

[23] Id. art. 2.

[24] Id. art. 1.

[25] Id. art. 4.

[26] Id. art. 3.

[27] NPCSC, 2020 Legislative Agenda (June 20, 2020), https://perma.cc/3NJK-ESQ6 (in Chinese).

[28] E.g., Zhuhai Municipality Nong Mao Shi Chang Management Measures (issued by the Zhuhai Municipality Government on Jan. 24, 2013, revised Aug. 14, 2015, effective Oct. 28, 2015), https://perma.cc/5YEF-QDUC; Shanghai Municipality Standard Cai Shi Chang Management  Measures (issued by Shanghai Municipality Government on Mar. 30, 2011), https://perma.cc/55KY-XXPM (both in Chinese).

[29] Regulation of Food Hygiene Management of Marketplaces (issued by the Ministry of Health on Mar. 10, 2003, effective May 1, 2003), Westlaw China (by subscription). 

[30] Id. art. 7.

[31] Id. art. 17.

[32] Animal Epidemic Prevention Law (adopted by the NPCSC on July 3, 1997, last amended Apr. 24, 2015) art. 20, https://perma.cc/69SM-V2NX (in Chinese).

[33] Wuhan Is Returning to Life. So Are Its Disputed Wet Markets, supra note 4.

[34] Wang Chen & Jiang Yifan, The Legal Proposals Shaping the Future of Wildlife in China, China Dialogue (Apr. 3, 2020), https://perma.cc/BHT6-QT7V.

[35] Jiang, supra note 3.

[36] One Hundred Days of Unblocking Wuhan: Pain and Love in the Post-epidemic Period, Shanghai Observer (July 21, 2020), https://perma.cc/5JVE-R9RU (in Chinese).

[37] National Forestry and Grassland Administration: All Commercial Use of Land Wildlife for the Purpose of Food Is Stopped, Xinhua (Feb. 27, 2020), https://perma.cc/L5XV-BUGF (in Chinese).

[38] China Enters Era of No Wildlife Eating, Xinhua (Mar. 4, 2020), https://perma.cc/NV86-3Z6A (in Chinese).

[39] Gradual Cancellation of Market Trade of Live Poultry Is the General Trend, Xinhua (July 7, 2020), https://perma.cc/TKL3-WVGA (in Chinese). 

[40] Ben Westcott & Serenitie Wang, China’s Wet Markets Are Not What Some People Think They Are, CNN (Apr. 23, 2020), https://perma.cc/7CXH-ZFSF.

[41] Wang & Jiang, supra note 34.

Last Updated: 12/31/2020