2,000 years and 23 dynasties later, China to end state monopoly on salt

What Confucian scholars in 81 B.C. could not change, today's market forces may. But what to do with 10,000 jobs in the table salt monopoly? 

A worker takes off the protective sheet covering newly produced crude salt between sea salt ponds after a rainfall at a saltworks in Quanzhou, Fujian province, in 2011.

They say things change quickly in China, but that’s not always true. Some things take a very long time indeed to change. Like the government’s monopoly on table salt, in force for the last two millenniums.

But now, it seems, the longest-running economic policy in the world is running out of steam.

Last week the Chinese government announced it is drafting a plan to free up the sale of salt as part of its drive toward “the progressive completion of the market system.”

Such change would be truly historic: the Chinese state’s salt monopoly has survived 23 imperial dynasties, 37 years of republican rule, and 65 years of Communist government.

“It’s a leftover from the old planned economy,” says Sun Jin, a professor at Wuhan University who specializes in competition law. “The government wants to marketize it.”

Economic impact close to zero

Once upon a time, salt was a pillar of the state’s authority, providing essential revenues. Today, according to independent estimates, profits from the China National Salt Industry Corporation bring in about 0.04 percent of the government’s income.

“The economic impact of this reform will probably be close to zero,” says Chen Long, an analyst for economics consultancy Dragonomics.

But that doesn’t mean it will be easy. The government has made five previous efforts to dismantle the state-owned salt bureaucracy (not counting a debate at the imperial court in 81 B.C. in which Confucian scholars argued against it) without success.

With more than 2,000 years behind it, the salt administration is well entrenched and its leaders have been able to fight off reformists. One argument they have made: what to do with the tens of thousands of people who work in the state system who would lose their jobs if the monopoly is abolished?

The real reason for their reluctance, though, says Prof. Sun, is that the table salt trade yields fat profits “that end up with a small group of top officials at China Salt and the government salt industry supervision department.”

Watch out for fake salt

The Chinese public is not entirely convinced by the idea of reform, either. Last week’s news was greeted with alarm on social media, where Internauts worried that if state controls are lifted, “fake” salt could start flooding the market.

In fact, the current system encourages trade in illegal fake salt, say critics, pointing to police raids such as the one last month in Zhengzhou, in the central province of Henan, that netted 28 tons of industrial salt being sold as edible salt.

That’s because, under the monopoly, the government sets the retail price of salt, and it sets it high – four times the price that China Salt pays when it buys wholesale from approved producers. Chinese shoppers pay twice as much as American consumers for their salt. So there is a strong incentive for unscrupulous traders to sell cheap industrial salt, which is freely available but full of potentially harmful impurities, as table salt.

Overzealous salt police

Tracking down such traders is a special “salt police force” whose job it is, among other things, to make sure that nobody is selling salt from one province elsewhere in the country.

Last month inspectors from this force drew ridicule when they descended on Mr. and Mrs. Huang, who had just moved their family restaurant from Zhengzhou to another town about eight miles away called Xinzheng, taking their salt with them.

In an excess of zeal, the Xinzheng salt police seized this illegally transported salt and fined the couple $35, according to a report in the Beijing News. When news of the incident spread (it even made the national TV news), the police apologized. But that may have been the final nail in the coffin of an ancient policy that has long been an anachronism.

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