The world’s oldest monopoly is finally coming to an end

Under state control since the Han Dynasty.
Under state control since the Han Dynasty.
Image: Flickr user Dubravko Sorić
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Starting in 2016, China will start liberalizing its nearly 2,600-year-old monopoly on table salt—opening up the world’s oldest monopoly to competition at last.

At the moment, China National Salt Industry Corporation is the only entity allowed to sell table salt in China. And it’s a big business. China produces more of it than any other country, and, if you count the demand from the chemical industry, uses a quarter of all the salt consumed on the planet, reports the China Daily.

In fact, demand is so stiff that contraband salt is a recurrent problem. Since 1994, Beijing had its own special salt monopoly-enforcing police force, which was at one point staffed with more than 25,000 officers, reports Forbes contributor Brian Viard. In 2013, Taobao, Alibaba’s massive online marketplace, and other e-commerce sites launched an illegal salt crackdown to comply with regulations.

Government control over salt began in the independent state of Qi—in what’s now Shandong—during the Spring and Autumn period (722 and 479 BC), roughly around the same time that Confucius lived. In 119 BC, the Han emperor instituted it nationally. The fortunes of Chinese empires have sometimes depended on the control of salt supplies. While often a critical source of government revenue, salt was so valuable that it enabled the rise of two smugglers who eventually overthrew the Tang and the Yuan dynasties (link in Chinese).

Feature image by Flickr user Dubravko Sorić (image has been cropped).