An expert's point of view on a current event.

Don’t Blame Bat Soup for the Coronavirus

Racist memes target Chinese eating habits, but the real causes of the virus are more mundane.

By , a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.
A vendor (C) wearing a facemask offers meat at a near-empty market on the eve of the Lunar New Year in Wuhan on January 24, 2020.
A vendor (C) wearing a facemask offers meat at a near-empty market on the eve of the Lunar New Year in Wuhan on January 24, 2020. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

As news of the novel coronavirus spread online, one video became emblematic of its claimed origin: It showed a young Chinese woman, supposedly in Wuhan, biting into a virtually whole bat as she held the creature up with chopsticks. Media outlets from the Daily Mail to RT promoted the video, as did a number of prominent extremist bloggers such as Paul Joseph Watson. Thousands of Twitter users blamed supposedly “dirty” Chinese eating habits—in particular the consumption of wildlife—for the outbreak, said to have begun at a so-called wet market that sold animals in Wuhan, China.

There was just one problem. The video wasn’t set in Wuhan at all, where bat isn’t a delicacy. It wasn’t even from China. Instead it showed Wang Mengyun, the host of an online travel show, eating a dish in Palau, a Pacific island nation. Sampling the bat was simply an addition to the well-trodden cannon of adventurism and enthusiasm for unusual foods that numerous American chefs and travel hosts have shown in the past.

At a time of heightened fear over a viral pandemic, the Palau video has been deployed in the United States and Europe to renew an old narrative about the supposedly disgusting eating habits of foreigners, especially Asians. Images of Chinese people or other Asians eating insects, snakes, or mice frequently circulate on social media or in clickbait news stories. This time, that was mixed with another old racist idea: that the “dirty” Chinese are carriers of disease. Many Americans long believed that, as the New York Daily Tribune wrote in 1854, Chinese people were “uncivilized, unclean, filthy beyond all conception.” Today, those same ideas have often been transferred to other groups such as South American refugees, yet they still persist in the way some Westerners think about China.

At a time of heightened fear over a viral pandemic, the Palau video has been deployed in the United States and Europe to renew an old narrative about the supposedly disgusting eating habits of foreigners, especially Asians.

These prejudices can fuel fear and racism. As the virus spreads, the Chinese as a group are more and more likely to be blamed for its incubation and spread. In countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where there are already clashes around ethnic Chinese, those sentiments could turn nasty. In the West, especially under the Trump administration, it could fuel both government and public prejudices.

To be sure, the treatment of wildlife may be at the root of the virus. Wet markets where live animals are sold, mostly for food or medicine, still exist in most Chinese cities, and the Huanan Seafood Market was originally believed to be the source of this outbreak. The Chinese government has banned the wildlife trade until the epidemic is over.

But as it turns out, the market may not have been the cause of the outbreak at all. A new study shows that the early known victims had no contact with the market. And although the virus, at present, does seem to have originated in bats, it’s unclear how it made its way to humans. It’s quite likely no chowing down on the creatures of the night was involved.

Many Chinese people certainly like tucking into dishes Americans would consider unusual, though a lot of this is confined to very high-end or weirdly macho audiences, such as Beijing’s penis restaurant. But the standards of what animals we do and don’t eat are culturally arbitrary. Vegetarianism is morally consistent, but deploring the eating of dogs while tucking into companionable and intelligent pigs isn’t. (I myself have eaten many things others might find gross: dog soup, insects, Chicago deep-dish pizza.) And it goes both ways: A lot of East Asians, for instance, find the taste of lamb disgusting. The range of tastes inside China is as great as it is outside; the Cantonese habit of eating “everything with four legs save the table and everything that flies but the airplane” is a standing joke in the rest of the country.

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And when it comes to disease, it’s not what’s being eaten that matters as much as the conditions—such as the standards workers are trained to meet, the lack of barriers at markets, and the absence or bribing of regulators and health inspectors. The H1N1 virus, after all, started not in any uncommon species, but in pigs.

And that’s where China really does have issues. The country’s food safety standards are notoriously bad, despite numerous government-led initiatives to improve them. Food scandals are common, and diarrhea and food poisoning are a distressingly regular experience. Markets, like Huanan, that aren’t licensed for live species nevertheless sell them. Workers are undertrained in basic hygiene techniques like glove-wearing and hand-washing. Dangerous additives are commonly used to increase production.

China’s conditions are not unique. It looks, in fact, a lot like the United States did in the past, before muckraking exposés led to the creation of modern regulation systems. Even today, the United States can lag behind best practices on such issues as antibiotics in feed, cattle slaughter, or poultry washing. And, as with the American public of the 1900s, the Chinese citizenry badly wants change. Seventy-seven percent of the public ranks food safety as their single biggest concern.

As with so much else in China, politics gets in the way of sensible policy. Exposés of the kind that drove reform in the United States have a hard time finding traction in China’s censorious media environment, where the interests of billion-dollar corporations and their party backers often override those of the public. When the author Zhou Qing wrote a groundbreaking exposé, What Kind of God, on the Chinese food industry in 2006, two-thirds of the book was removed before publication and its success eventually forced him into political exile.

Part of China’s problem can be attributed to the power of traditional Chinese medicine, which is responsible for much of the trade in wildlife. Many wild animals in China are killed not for culinary reasons but for essentially magical ones. Whether it’s tiger paws or pangolin scales, quack cures persist on a vast scale—even in cases like bear bile where a real active ingredient existed, has been discovered, and can be produced in labs without animal cruelty. The government has been heavily promoting traditional Chinese medicine, especially under President Xi Jinping’s new nationalism, and while officially pharmaceutical companies following this model eschew the wildlife trade, the propaganda around such traditional medicine in general helps ensure belief survives.

If the fallout from the Wuhan outbreak changes anything for the better, it may be that it gives a vital push to reform and more teeth to regulation. But as with so many past disasters in China, it could also mean a brief period of change before profits and power take precedence once again. Whatever happens, amid the current moment of fear and panic, support for the Chinese public will make a bigger difference than culinary judgments or racism.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally used the term “Wuhan virus” to refer to the coronavirus. It has been updated in line with WHO recommendations.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer