Through exploring the cultural politics of taste surrounding wild and endangered ocean fare, I illustrate how sourcing to satisfy China's urban demand exacerbates ocean wildlife populations. Finally, I reflect on how the emerging pandemic is transforming urban life in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region. These lenses bring into sharp relief the entanglements of urban China's global reach with more-than-human worlds.


he genesis and spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 have transformed urban social life across the world. Following the precedent set by China, Hong Kong, and other East Asian nations, many states in the U.S. have mandated "social distancing" and all non-essential businesses have been shuttered. Many international borders have closed, and flights have been grounded worldwide. City streets are unrecognizable as urban social life has gone indoors.

These dramatic changes illustrate how China's always-more-than-human cities are shaping social worlds beyond their own metropolitan borders. But COVID-19 is far from the only way that China's cities are transforming the world—on land, at sea, and even in the air. In this essay, I show how COVID-19 epitomizes but does not exclusively define the global reach of China's cities, which is weaving new interconnections between humans and non-humans, including viruses and endangered wildlife.

In December 2019, an as-of-then unnamed virus broke out at Huanan seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan. In a matter of weeks, the virus spread from the seafood market via human bodies throughout the city of Wuhan. From Wuhan, the virus moved throughout China and continued across the world. The material conditions of its origins remain unclear. However, discussions within China and beyond hold that the consumption of exotic and endangered species is directly related to the emergence of the virus.

A leading theory of COVID-19's genesis is a zoonotic transfer to humans from pangolins, which served as intermediate hosts from bats (Yu, 2020). Before it was closed by the state, Huanan market was a node of circulation and consumption for "wild" animals from the land and sea: bushmeat, koalas, venomous snakes, wolf puppies, shark fins, and fish maw (dried swim bladders), to list a few. The widespread association of this wildlife market with the virus in China elicited a new plan from President Xi Jinping, released on Feb 24, 2020, towards "Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People." At least within China, there is a pervasive concern that urban social practices born from the desire for "wild tastes" (ye wei) gave birth to this new virus strand.

COVID-19 traversed elements of the earth in multiple senses. The virus spreads through liquid and air, via contact with saliva, respiratory droplets, eyes, and mucous. It travels, incubates in human hosts, through nodes of transportation from city to city along circuits of global capital, via air. Humans transported the virus along waterways with hosts quarantined in cruise ships off the coasts of Japan and California. Viral pathways of transmission initially followed circuits of capital accumulation. For a brief time, near the end of January up through the middle of March 2020, the map of viral infection mirrored global wealth distribution. The world's richest countries, as well as those with "thickest" forms of globalization, saw their national number of cases grow dramatically. For a new virus - technically a non-living organism that reproduces through zoonotic transmission - interpersonal connection, social connectivity, and the circulation of capital are crucial for transmission on a global scale.

This emerging pandemic and new apocalyptic reality have brought into sharp relief the entanglements of human life with more-than-human worlds. These phenomena have also exposed the need to consider China's global reach in new ways. Scholarship on China's global interconnectivity has predominantly focused on the role of FDI and Chinese capital abroad (Lee, 2018; Avendano et. al., 2017) and acquisition of other countries' lands, commonly referred to as "land grabs" (Hofman and Ho, 2012; Oliveira, 2018). The current pandemic makes clear a crucial need for new forms of engaging China's reach, particularly the ways that China's urban tastes shapes the fabric of social life beyond national borders.

Global Wildlife Consumption and Cultural Politics of Ocean Tastes

Despite the fact that China's consumption of wildlife has transformed animal populations and political economies of fisheries across the world, Xi Jinping's new government order prohibiting trade of "wild" animals applies to terrestrial wildlife only - not aquatic wildlife. Urban consumption in China and Hong Kong together generate the highest demand for fish in the world - placing enormous stress on global fisheries. China is the world's largest importer of fish and fishery products. In 2012, this figure was upwards of USD 7.5 billion in China, while Hong Kong, a city-state, was the 10th largest globally, with 3.7 billion USD in imports (Sumaila and Cheung, 2015). These figures are particularly striking given that China is the world's most populated country with 1.4 billion people, while Hong Kong is a city with roughly seven million people.

In order to satisfy China's and Hong Kong's demand, fish are harvested from all over the world. China's DWF (Distant Water Fishing) fleets are the largest globally. Fisheries scientists estimate gross underreporting of China's DWF catches, as official figures are not entirely trustworthy (Pauly, Belhabib, Blomeyer, et. al. 2014). Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has a huge impact across local and global economic, social, and environmental spheres. China's DWF fleets rank 44 out of 53 countries for IUU activities, wreaking havoc on fisheries stocks, local artisanal fishermen, and endangered species (Mallory, 2013). IUU fishing, however, is often undertaken by fishermen subsidized by the Chinese state.

China's DWF fleets are the most highly subsidized in the world. Most DWF companies use state subsidies to purchase gas, which extends fishing far beyond national borders and into other countries' Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and Marine Protected Areas (MPA). This has led to international conflicts over the illicit collection of rare and endangered species. For example, in 2018 the Fu Yuan Leng 999 was captured with the largest ever illegal catch of endangered species off the coast of Ecuador. This incident is indicative of rising cases of Chinese DWF vessels' IUU activities within and near EEZ territory, fueled by domestic subsidies enabling their trans-oceanic reach.

In the recent past, one of the most notorious exotic wildlife commodities consumed in China was shark fins. While still a pressing environmental issue, shark fin consumption in some Chinese cities has dropped by nearly half (Wu, 2016). In its place, there has been a marked rise in the consumption of a popular shark fin alternative - fish maw. Fish maw, a dried buoyancy bladder, is a delicacy valued both for its high levels of collagen content and for the social prestige conferred on those who can afford to eat it. Rising demand for fish maw triggered poaching of two species particularly known for fish maw: the endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), fished off the coast of Mexico, and the Chinese bahaba (Bahaba taipingensis), fished in the South China Sea. The vertical fishing nets used to catch totoaba in the Gulf of California are also inadvertently netting and killing vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the world's most endangered marine mammal.

As recent work has shown (de Mitchseon et. al, 2019), the networks necessary to satisfy Hong Kong's demand for fish maw span the globe. Hong Kong is not only a site of consumption of fish maw but also a seafood entrepot, cycling fish maw into South China and Southeast Asia. The demand for fish maw is one example of how cultural politics of taste affect myriad ocean species and political economies globally.

Shark fins (above) and fish maw (below) for sale at a fish market in South China. Sourcing these ocean commodities for China's urban consumption endangers ocean wildlife populations on a global scale (Source: Jesse Rodenbiker).

Cultural politics of taste for fish maw are gendered and classed. Sellers and traders in wet markets, as well as advertisements, suggest that fish maw carries high viscosity gel proteins and mucopolysaccharide, which is promised to improve women's skin. It is widely held that the fish maw's high levels of collagen, phosphorus, and calcium are beneficial for skin therapy and skin beautification. It is just as commonly sought out by expecting mothers to ease the bodily discomforts of pregnancy. Fish maw are differentially valued and listed for "quality" based on the gender of the organ. Male fish maw is thought to have a "thicker body," while female fish maw have a "thinner body" and are more "tender" (Emperor Brand, 2017). Large male organs fetch the highest prices. Species that produce large maw, such as croakers (Scianidae), are undergoing severe stress on population numbers due to overfishing. Consuming fish maw with these specific morphological and gendered properties is symbolic of class distinction. The gendered and classed geographies of biological organs' circulation and consumption illustrates how China's urban reach transforms more-than-human worlds on a global scale.

Map showing volume in tons (t) of fish maw imported to Hong Kong by source countries. (Source de Mitcheson et. al 2019, Tabulated from Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department).

Urban Social Life: Interrupted or interconnected?

Writing from Central New Jersey, an area quickly becoming engulfed in one of the largest nodes of the global pandemic - the greater New York and Mid-Atlantic region - urban social life is hardly recognizable. In the borough in which I live, the state forced all "non-essential" businesses to shut down. Like millions across the US, my partner and I have become elementary school teachers for our child while trying to work from home. Yet, despite these conditions, demands for labor output have not deviated from "normal" times. Universities, for instance, are demanding plans for research and teaching continuity. Work, for many, is expected to carry on - apace -in place.

Houses across the Eastern and Western U.S. seaboards have transformed into spaces of production. Domestic spheres are now sites of work and school, but most of all containment. In Italy, where the death toll from COVID-19 recently surpassed China and continues to rise, all non-essential enterprises have been shut down and trips outside the home have been curtailed. In the early days of lockdown, Italian police forces cited over 40,000 people for violating stay-at-home measures. Indonesia and India have become the latest countries to issue nation-wide "stay-at-home" orders. The spread of COVID-19 is producing multiple new forms of social life.

Many state-led efforts entail new forms of personal biological austerity. Lancione and Simone (2020) describe new austerity measures arising in this moment as "bioterity," referring to how the war on the virus extends austerity regimes over "biological mechanisms of human existence." In the wake of such measures, the affective quality of urban life has drastically transformed. "Social distancing" has emptied once vibrant public spaces. For those with internet access, work and social life have become digital. Everyday social separation and domestic isolation are byproducts of the circulation of non-living biological entities that prey on living cells.

Restaurants in the US, such as this Americana Diner in Central New Jersey, remain open for takeout only. (Source Bryan Anselm in NYtimes).

In recognizing this, it is imperative to resist narratives that reify the experience of crises behind national borders, such as those espoused by the U.S. President, who characterized the pandemic as a "Chinese virus" (Chiu 2020). Viruses don't carry passports or sing national anthems. The violence perpetuated by the association of biological contagion with "China" contributes to xenophobia and national tensions during a moment when solidarity is needed. The embodied experiences of infection, fear, and hopefulness are shared. As social isolation becomes a part of everyday life, we need to recognize our interdependencies and shared experiences.

The streets of New York and New Jersey reflect the sense of apocalyptic urgency that faces the greater Mid-Atlantic region and the world. Our current moment points to many instances of interconnection that require attention and critical intervention. This short essay highlighted a few possibilities, such as public health and animal geographies, emerging biological austerity measures, the politics of domestic labor relations under quarantine, aquatic geographies of urban circulation, internet sociality and social organization during pandemics, cultural politics of "wild" taste and political economies of endangered wildlife. It can be hoped that intervention in these areas will lead to new solidarities and forms of social organization, much needed in this time of global crisis, that will contribute to uniting us across borders and beyond merely human worlds.


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Jesse Rodenbiker is a Postdoctoral Fellow with the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability and Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.