The Yangtze River has given two culinary delicacies to the people of Jiangnan: crab and pike. I remember eating pike in spring, and crab during the mid-autumn festival when I was a child living in my old Nanjing home where these two delicacies were bound to grace our dining table every year. Big Sluice Crab (also known as Chinese Mitten Crab and Shanghai Hairy Crab) was very costly in the 1980s due to river pollution and other reasons. The average monthly wage then was less than one hundred yuan, but crab could cost more than a hundred yuan a kati. Still, we had to have a meal of crab during the mid-autumn festival, otherwise it would seem as though my family had not passed the year with dignity. My family would live frugally, and even forgo eating pork for a whole month, just so that we could have at least a few crab legs during the mid-autumn festival. This is how immensely important crab is in Jiangnan people’s lives.
Crab is much cheaper now. The average price of premium grade crab in Nanjing’s seafood wholesale market is only about one hundred yuan per kati. This is more than a tenfold decrease from 1980 prices relative to the current average monthly wage of several thousand yuan. We can expect prices to fall further due to higher crab yields resulting from large-scale farming which is possible because complications of artificial propagation have been resolved since the 1990s. Further, crab does not require exacting living conditions and can survive in ponds created by farmers, which is why most Jiangsu farmers breed crab, as I discovered when I was home for the mid-autumn festival. So, we will probably still have the good fortune to feast on Yangtze River crab to our hearts’ content in the foreseeable future.
Pike lovers are not so fortunate. It has been said that pike’s delectable taste is difficult to describe in writing. Like crab, it quickly found its way into common citizens’ homes because of relatively low prices. But gourmets who want their pike may be out of luck these few years unless they pay shocking prices. I gathered during my survey of the seafood wholesale market that besides being scarce, with only a few on sale, pike also cost as much as about a thousand yuan a kati. The ordinary consumer cannot possibly afford such a price. No wonder some netizens have voiced their alarm, and suggested that Yangtze River pike be officially listed as a luxury good.
Why is there more and more crab to eat, yet fewer and fewer pike? This is related to pike’s growth habits and characteristics. Pike is an energetic and peculiar fish. It dies once it leaves water, and it needs different fish-feed during various stages of its growth. That is why it must be bred in larger bodies of water for it to feed and swim freely. It is not suited to congested pens, in contrast to crab that can be safely confined in farm ponds. Safeguarding a pike owner’s property rights is problematic though because after releasing fish fries, he cannot be sure if they will be poached when they mature.
From this point of view, pike is similar to a public good. Without a private entrepreneur willing to risk having his property rights violated, private investors cannot resolve the contentious issue of high prices. Hence, it would be reasonable to expect the government to take charge of protecting pike’s habitats, releasing fry regularly, and implementing other measures to benefit the public. However, although the Chinese government may reluctantly invest in financially promising public projects such as highways, it is usually not motivated to participate in projects such as pike protection that do not offer direct profits. Issuing licences is a feasible solution, but it can lead to many other issues too. How, for instance, can pike be distinguished from other fish, and how can officials from relevant government departments be prevented from using this as an excuse to impose questionable and discretionary taxes, and so on?
From the difficult straits of the pike market, we can notice a general trend in Chinese society. As long as private investment has positive spin-offs, the price of the product will decline progressively. For instance, in the 1980s, prices of refrigerators, television sets, and other goods, including crab, were high, but prices fell rapidly when supplies expanded. Conversely, when private investment is both relatively risky and not financially rewarding to the government, even products needed by ordinary citizens will be increasingly scarce. The subject of pike is a case in point of apparent contradictions within Chinese society. While not being that touchy, they are, nevertheless, very real concerns.