On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

One man’s meat…

Wild animals may have tickled the palates of the adventurous, but the spread of another deadly global disease should conclusively put paid to unnecessary dietary requirements.

THERE is a well-known Chinese joke that the community has no qualms eating the meat of anything that has four legs other than a table, anything that flies other than an airplane, and anything that swims other than a submarine.

Yes, the Chinese are certainly an adventurous lot when it comes to food.

For sure, Chinese food isn’t just fried rice, sweet and sour fish, dumplings and fried noodles – the standard fare for most Westerners when it comes to Chinese cuisine.

And certainly, experimenting with Chinese food isn’t just about chicken feet, century eggs, stinky tofu, boiled blood cubes and less “desirable” pig body parts.

Common in China is the sight of street food encompassing scorpion, pupa, grasshoppers, lizard, starfish and crickets on skewers, especially in the Wangfujing area in Beijing.

These creepy-crawly snacks are apparently the norm, even if tourists cringe, joke and take bragging right photographs for Instagram purposes.

But in the lesser known, dark market areas in some parts of China, the harsh and sad reality is that there is a demand for exotic meat – those of snakes, dogs, cats, civet cats, bats and now, even wolf pups.

It’s unclear if the novel coronavirus’ source is a bat or snake at the Wuhan market, but we can conclusively agree on one thing – there is absolutely no need to consume such meat.

Not all Chinese have this persuasion for something different, though. Remember, China is a country of 1.3 billion people.

But the recent outbreak of the virus has given rise to racist and xenophobic displays towards this community, and even ethnic Chinese in other parts of the world.

It doesn’t help that there is a widely circulated video of Chinese social media influencer, Wang Mengyun, tucking into a bowl of bat soup. Here’s the clincher though – the video was filmed three years ago in Palau, a Pacific island nation where bat soup is a delicacy.

Regrettably, the video has been used in the United States and Europe to renew an old narrative about the supposedly disgusting eating habits of foreigners, especially Asians.

However, perception is always an issue, whether we like it or not. So, the time has come for the Chinese government, with all its might, to put a stop to the trade of exotic meats.

It isn’t just cruel to eat these animals, but the Chinese simply don’t need to eat any of this in the first place. Most don’t and there is no reason to fear a backlash, really.

Let’s face it, tiger penises are not going to improve the sexual prowess of anyone in China. It’s preposterous to even think that.

No one there is dying of hunger either, and there is no famine in the republic which could warrant eating wild animals and tree bark, like what was reported in North Korea at one time.

China is self-sufficient when it comes to food, since it produces half of the world’s pig population and 37 million tons of farmed fish, which is more than 60% of the world’s total, according to a report.

It’s not good enough that China has ordered a temporary ban on the trade in wild animals as the country struggles to contain a deadly virus believed spawned in a Wuhan market that sold exotic creatures as food.

A government directive says that raising, transporting or selling all wild animal species is forbidden “from the date of the announcement until the national epidemic situation is over.”

Conservationists have long accused China of tolerating a shadowy trade in exotic animals for food and as ingredients in traditional medicines, including highly endangered species such as the pangolin and tiger. Experts say the trade poses a significant and growing public health risk as potentially dangerous animal-borne pathogens that people would normally not be exposed to, make the jump to humans.

According to a news report, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus that killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in 2002 to 2003, was also traced to wild animals; scientists say it likely originated in bats, later reaching humans via civets.

“Civets, a cat-like creature, were among dozens of species listed on an exhaustive price list for one of the animal-trading businesses at the Wuhan market that emerged online last week. Other items included various rats, snakes, giant salamanders and even live wolf pups.”

The announcement said all businesses, markets, food and beverage outlets and e-commerce platforms are “strictly prohibited from trading in wild animals in any form”.

It added that “consumers must fully understand the health risks of eating wild animals, avoid wild game, and eat healthy, ” according to AFP.

The so-called bushmeat trade, along with broader human encroachment on wild habitats, is bringing humans into ever-closer contact with animal viruses that can spread rapidly in today’s connected world, scientists reportedly say.

A study by the Global Virome Project, a worldwide effort to increase preparedness for pandemics, estimated that there are nearly 1.7 million undiscovered viruses in the animal kingdom, nearly half of which could be harmful to humans.

Peter Daszak, a virology expert with the project, said its research also indicated that we could expect around five new animal-borne pathogens to infect humanity each year.

China has previously cracked down on the wildlife trade, including after SARS, but conservationists say the trade typically resumes over time.

This is a good time for the Chinese government to launch a massive education campaign against the consumption of such exotic meat, in the foolish belief that they cure health problems or even function as an aphrodisiac. On the contrary, in some cases, it has been proven that they are even harmful to health.

As the Chinese population becomes more affluent and sophisticated, it’s clear that they will stay away from such eating habits.

Many Chinese now rear dogs as pets, which, during China’s early days as a struggling communist country, was dismissed as bourgeoisie behaviour to flout wealth. It has been reported that China is home to 130 million pet dogs, so it’s no wonder animal rights activists there have emerged in protesting the sale of dog meat.

China’s animal-protection movement is growing among young people, especially with those in urban areas and on the Internet. In April 2012, activists rescued 505 dogs headed for slaughter from a truck on which they had endured harsh conditions.

It is heartening to note that the state linked China Global Television Network has also called for a ban on the sale of exotic meat.Wild animals are not meant to be traded for their meat, fur or, as in the case of the Asiatic bears, their bile. It’s also no longer acceptable to keep animals in cages in zoos, which are mere animal prisons.

This is the right time for China to impose a complete ban on the sale of wild animals as food, as well as implement animal protection laws.

Only the Chinese government has the power to shut down an entire city three times bigger than London. No government in the western world has that kind of clout to do the same, and it shows the kind of will that China has in fighting the virus.

It has stopped the people of Wuhan from travelling out of the city, because it wants to contain the virus.

China has done tremendously well economically over the last decade and has surely stunned and impressed the world with its growth. But it’s time now to take further steps.

As the late iconic Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi said, “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Basically, what that means is a civilised society is recognised by its ability to take care of the oppressed and helpless.

I am confident China will do what is right to win the fight against this virus and make things better. This is the time to stand together with the people of China (especially those in Wuhan) for a common cause.

Fear and prejudice will heighten with the declaration of a global public health emergency, but this is a humanitarian issue, and certainly not about race, trade wars or rivalry.