The transformation of urban vegetable retail in China: Wet markets, supermarkets and informal markets in Shanghai

Qian Forrest ZHANG, Singapore Management University


The state-monopolised system of vegetable retail in socialist urban China has been transformed into a market-based system run by profit-driven actors. Publicly-owned wet markets not only declined in number after the state relegated its construction to market forces, but were also thoroughly privatised, becoming venues of capital accumulation for the market operators now controlling these properties. Self-employed migrant families replaced salaried state employees in the labour force. Governments' increased control over urban public space reduced the room for informal markets, exacerbating the scarcity of vegetable retail space. Fragmentation in the production and wholesale systems restricted modern supermarkets' ability to establish streamlined supply chains and made them less competitive than wet markets. The transformation of urban vegetable retail documented here shows both the advance that capital has made in re-shaping China's agrifood system and the constraints that China's socialist institutions impose on it. Shanghai's experience also shows that the relative competitiveness of various retail formats is shaped by the state's intervention in building market infrastructure and institutions.