Old Habits Read this article at The New Republic Online
by Sheridan Prasso
Issue date 02.16.04

Walking through a wholesale market in December in Guangzhou, a city in southern China, I witnessed an animal lover's nightmare. For sale--to be slaughtered, gutted, de-furred or de-feathered, and boiled in garbage bins--were row after row of anything that could walk, scamper, or fly: ducks, dogs, foxes, turtles, boars, and cats, all crammed into tiny cages. It didn't take long for my shoes to become covered in the slime of animal feces and urine draining from the cages and mixing in the sewers with blood and bits of flesh and fur. Even worse was the smell--of dung and rot and death. It permeated my nasal membranes and lingered in them for days. And the acres of pens and cages in the market are just a small part of the local trade: Hundreds of thousands of animals are sold at warehouses outside the city.

Even though Beijing ordered the extermination of thousands of civets and rats to stem the reemergence of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (sars) in China this winter, the Guangzhou market reminded me that the unhygienic practices of South China are unlikely to be cleaned up anytime soon. Practices that have survived for decades seem ingrained here, where sars is believed to have originated, crossing from animals to humans who killed or ate them. True, so far China has contained sars better than last year, and fewer than ten cases have been reported in the south. But that's faint praise--last year, the disease spread across the country and caused mass hysteria. And real change is hardly in the cards. Even when Beijing has imposed regulations, they have been lightly enforced by the officials in Guangzhou, who have locals' economic interests in mind. Squalid market conditions certainly haven't changed. After last year's outbreak, authorities banned the sale of 54 types of wild animals but lifted the ban in August, in time for winter; many people in Guangzhou eat wild animals in cold weather, in the belief that they warm the body. Unfortunately, sars, like the flu, gathers force in winter.

In fact, most people here simply don't believe their habits have caused sars. Instead, many blame Americans--namely U.S. biological warfare against China. "The Americans fly over in planes and drop [sars] on us," one vendor assured me. His declaration brought nods of agreement among the crowd of fellow vendors and customers. This conspiracy theory has circulated in Chinese Internet chat rooms since the peak of sars last spring. It even resulted in the publication of a book last fall titled The Last Defense Line: Concerns About the Loss of Chinese Genes. The author, Tong Zeng, an activist for Chinese patriotic causes who has no medical background, suggested that American researchers who took blood samples in China in the 1990s for a longevity study may have created an anti-Chinese bioweapon--sars. The book's hypothesis was reported on the front page of the Southern Metropolitan Daily, one of the most popular newspapers in Guangzhou. This conspiracy theory is probably a minority view, but it's part of a larger ethos. By pointing the finger elsewhere, vendors and customers rationalize a refusal to clean up fetid markets or stop eating wild animals. "It takes them off the hook for their own sanitation deficiencies," an American official who has studied Guangzhou's markets told me.

The irony is that, across other major cities in China, the government has instituted massive cleanliness campaigns. In Hong Kong, hand-sanitizers have been mounted on the walls of restaurants and elevator lobbies, and notices on shopping-mall escalators say that handrail belts are disinfected hourly. The interiors of taxicabs and buses are spotless, with drivers regularly wiping down the dashboards and wheels with disinfectant. In Shanghai, the government has asked restaurants to provide serving spoons for dishes set in the center of banquet tables to stop the practice of diners sticking their own chopsticks in communal dishes. Of course, Hong Kong and Shanghai have large tourism industries, which could be impacted by sars.

But, in Guangzhou, which has little tourism, there is no such organized campaign. Guangzhou's residents are primarily Cantonese Chinese; they speak a different dialect than Beijingers and live 1,200 miles from the capital. The Cantonese have always been somewhat independent-spirited: Today, Guangzhou newspapers are the feistiest in China, exposing corruption and challenging authority--at least as much as is possible in an authoritarian country. Yet the government hasn't tried too hard in Guangzhou. I watched people litter and spit on the sidewalks without fines, and I ate in restaurants that didn't provide serving spoons. Taxi and bus interiors are coated with grime. Many people who enjoy eating wild animals told me that they will continue to do so. The market vendors are poorly paid, earning less than $150 per month, and the government has not offered them any incentives to clean up their businesses. Without any government mandate, markets that charged higher prices to compensate for the costs of clean cages would be undercut by those that didn't. Instead, the government seems to be encouraging the conspiracy-minded. All media in China are monitored, so the U.S. biowarfare theory likely enjoys the tacit approval of Beijing. It might seem puzzling that China's government would want people to believe Americans caused sars. But, last year, two government officials were fired over the sars debacle, and some in Beijing may want to deflect further blame.

Given all this, it was hardly surprising that on one visit to the animal market last month, just as I was lifting my feet to look at the accumulated gunk, I saw an old man cough, hawk phlegm, and spit it onto the floor. The white gob floated there for a few moments--on top of the guano, the cat urine, and the vile and viral muck--before it disappeared into the footprints of market passersby.

Sheridan Prasso recently completed a Knight International Press Fellowship in China, and is a contributing editor for BusinessWeek.