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China’s Growing Drug Problem

China’s "Open Door" policy quickly turned it into a hotbed for drug trafficking. In addition to having an expanding base of drug addicts, it is becoming a drug producer and a new center for global distribution.

Twenty years ago, few people saw or knew that any drug abuse existed in China; it was wiped out after the communists took power in 1949.

After the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre devastated people’s fundamental values, the Chinese regime diverted social discontent and dampened moral pressure by turning to human greed for motivation. The ensuing get-rich-quick economic reform in China let loose a selfishness that has drastically enlarged the country’s rich-poor gap. People are, as never before, desperate to find a way to make money—for the poor to get out of poverty and for the comfortable to get richer. Unleashing the genie of greed had an unanticipated side effect. Attracted by the huge profits to be made in illicit drug trafficking, and unimpeded by any foundation in morality, many people have become drug makers and drug dealers.

Experts disagree about how many drug addicts there are in China. According to statistics from the Chinese authorities, by the end of 2004, there were about 791,000 registered drug addicts in China [1], with an annual increase rate of 6.8 percent. Experts at the national anti-drug conference held in May 2005 in Lingbo, Zhejian Province, estimated that there were 680,000 active Chinese drug addicts [2], while yet another source reported that the number of registered addicts had grown to 1.14 million in 2005.[3] The 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) reported that China had as many as 1.6 million registered drug addicts in 2004 and double that number in 2005. Yet another analyst estimated that the number of addicts could be as high as seven million. While these figures vary, depending on the source, there is no doubt that the problem is serious and that it is growing.

Getting Worse

It is hard to imagine that in just 30 years narcotics would become such a problem in China. In 2001, the Chinese communist government estimated that there were about one million drug addicts, and in 2003 the government’s Drug Abuse Surveillance Network found that 96.8 percent of those users were addicted to heroin. Amphetamine-type stimulants have nevertheless risen rapidly in popularity in the last few years. In 2002, the government seized three tons (6,720 lbs.) of "ice" (methamphetamine hydrochloride) and three million ecstasy tablets. Moreover, such statistics as have been mentioned probably underestimate the country’s actual drug problem, as certain analysts suggest that the real figure may be as high as seven million addicts in China today.{mospagebreak}

Furthermore, the use of narcotics encourages other criminal acts and creates social disorder, allowing drug dealers to become abusers. It encourages robbery, breeds deception, seriously raises the rate of prostitution, and contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. In some areas, 60 to 80 percent of all robberies are perpetrated by drug abusers. At the end of September 2005, China’s Ministry of Health confirmed 144,089 cases of HIV/AIDS. Some Chinese authorities put the figure of estimated HIV/AIDS infected persons at 650,000, but estimates from other sources say that there are likely between one million and three million cases in the country.[4]

Over half of the infections were caused by the intravenous injection of narcotics, the leading cause of such infections in China. Eighty percent of registered drug users have contracted an infectious disease. According to incomplete statistics, since the 1980s, there have been 49,378 accidental deaths resulting from the use of narcotics.


Experience demonstrates that, once HIV enters the injecting population, a country can expect a large and sustained HIV epidemic. This is now the case in China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Russia, and Ukraine—countries where more than 60 percent of all HIV infections are the result of injecting drugs.

Many drug users heighten their risk of HIV and other infections by engaging in risky behavior, such as needle sharing. To support their habit, some resort to prostitution, which provides a conduit for HIV to enter the non-drug-using population. At one surveillance site in Xinjiang, 84 percent of those who injected themselves with drugs had HIV. In the border town of Ruili in Yunnan, around 80 percent of drug users were infected. Infection rates at other surveillance sites in the most affected provinces range from 12 percent to 75 percent.[5]

The first AIDS occurrence reported in China was in Ruili, Yunnan Province, in 1989. On the map that the health authorities maintained in Yunnan, it was just a black dot along the border between China and Murya. Since then, these little black dots have taken over the map of southern China. By 1998, HIV infections had been reported in all 31 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities.

Drug injections and border trade are rampant and are helping to spread AIDS like wild fire. As early as 1991, Li Zhirong, an AIDS Doctor, examined 186 drug addicts and found 80 of them were HIV positive. Mangmo Village has been hit hard by the AIDS virus. Drug consumption is routine there and most of the HIV carriers are young people, including children. The most popular drug is heroin No. 4. At one time, the villagers wanted to form a security squad to keep order, but they could not locate anyone healthy enough to take the job. During the harvest seasons, grains were exchanged for heroin right there on the spot.{mospagebreak}

Poverty and Prostitution

The poverty stricken and those involved in prostitution often take drugs as a form of release. In turn, the addiction drags people into poverty and prostitution.

Chinese official statistics put the number of people living in poverty at 64,320,000.[6] The World Health Organization estimates that there are over six million women involved in prostitution.[7]

The number of drug addicts has grown exponentially in recent years. Of an estimated 1.14 million registered addicts in 2005, close to 20 percent are female. In some regions, over 80 percent of drug addicts are female. Ninety percent of these female addicts end up in prostitution.[8]

Ms. Wen was born in a coal-mining family in Xingyang, Henan Province, and has three younger brothers. Her family was too poor to allow her to get a high school education. At the innocent age of 17, Wen dropped out of school to support her family. Her parents advised her to walk her path in an upright manner and not to go astray in life while working in the city. At first, she became a waitress and then a performer in a nightclub in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Things looked good in the beginning and she was making decent money. Later she started smoking and then a co-worker gave her some heroin. She quickly became addicted and depleted her income, so she became a prostitute just to buy drugs. Her health deteriorated drastically.

As a drug addict, Wen was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp. Once released, she resumed her drug use and prostitution. She even stole when she needed money to buy drugs. "Whenever I think of my parents’ advice, my heart aches and I am full of remorse. I feel that prostitution is filthy indeed, but I cannot stop taking drugs. To get money for drugs, I will do anything, including taking off my pants."[9]

Most discos in China deal in drugs clandestinely. Each ecstasy pill costs 70 to 100 yuan (US$9-12.5). According to drug dealers (usually men), the best targets are young women with good looks. These women chase them around with one single pursuit: white or purple ecstasy pills. Once addicted, the women go into prostitution to pay the hefty cost of the drugs. They account for a large and stable segment of the drug market.{mospagebreak}

From Innocent Youth to Drug Addict

In recent years, some "new types of drugs" have been used to lure people who visit public entertainment facilities, particularly the younger generation. The Ministry of Public Security said in a statement last September that the selling and use of these new types of drugs, such as "ice" and ecstasy, is increasingly evident at many entertainment venues. Many criminals sell drugs to customers, especially youngsters, in places such as disco halls, bars, and other singing and dancing venues. Moreover, many of the owners, for the sake of their own profits, protect those who sell or take these drugs.

Many young drug addicts started taking drugs with the thought that it was only child’s play. "It was just for fun. I didn’t realize that it could be this bad," said a 15-year-old girl from Guangxi Province. A drug research book published by the Xinhua Book Publishing Company documented her story, observing, "She is still childlike and looks confused." The book documents quite a few stories of how young people became drug addicts.

Tian Ting, a 16-year-old student, gave the same answer. Ting is talented in playing the piano, dancing, and modeling, but her talents also nurtured her rebellious personality. She started to skip school and come home late. Her parents repeatedly found that she locked herself in her room. She often asked for a larger allowance and the frequency increased. Her parents’ suspicion was finally confirmed. She was doing drugs.

Yang Yiliu is just 17. His taking drugs started out of curiosity. He wanted to experience feeling happy. His friend told him it was okay to try it just once, so he did. Once he was addicted, he became easily irritated. He now needs to spend 200 yuan (US$25) a day on drugs. He had to lie to borrow money from everyone he knew. Soon no one around him trusted him anymore.

Guqi, a 20-year-old girl, said that she didn’t want to do drugs. She was simply curious and wanted to try them. She said, "After I took ecstasy for the first time, I didn’t feel anything. Soon I felt light and I could elevate. It was that feeling that got me hooked. Now I just can’t help myself."

The author had an interview with a 16-year-old boy from Beijing, who has a tattoo of a woman on his chest and a tattoo of a man on his back. He recently attended his classmate’s birthday banquet with 20 other male and female teenagers. No grown-ups were there. He said the last dish that was served was an ecstasy tablet for each person. "We were so excited. It pushed the party spirit to its extreme," he said.{mospagebreak}

On March 1, 2006, the U.S. State Department published the 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) [10], in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act. It describes the efforts of key countries in attacking all aspects of the international drug trade in the calendar year 2005.

According to this report, "drug abuse in China continues to rise and there were, as of 2004, 1.6 million registered drug addicts, double the number in 1995."[11]

The report said that youths made up 74 percent of the registered drug addicts.

As a result of China’s economic growth, the focus on avarice, and increasing societal openness over the last decade, the disposable income and leisure time of millions of young urban residents have dramatically increased.

According to the report, "This phenomenon has led to a rapid increase in drug abuse among the country’s youth in large and mid-sized cities." In addition, the rise of nightclubs in urban culture has led to an increased recreational abuse of drugs such as ecstasy.

Financial Cost

A national anti-drug conference was held in May of last year in Lingbo, Zhejiang Province. Experts estimated that 680,000 active Chinese drug addicts would expend about 39 billion yuan (US$4.9 billion) a year on drugs.[12] However, that estimate was conservative because, according to this source, by 2004, China had already identified (caught and put on a drug registry) 1.14 million drug addicts. Furthermore, if the estimate of seven million drug addicts is correct, as certain analysts suggest, the drug cost alone would be about US$40 billion a year.

Many drug addicts soon bankrupt their families to pay for their drugs, and some of them eventually engage in criminal activities to sustain their drug use. China’s Public Security Office estimated that 80 percent of male drug addicts had committed criminal acts, and 80 percent of female drug addicts were engaged in prostitution.

Drug rehabilitation costs China several billion yuan (US$875 million) each year. By the end of 2003, China had created 583 involuntary drug rehabilitation institutions with a total capacity of 116,000 beds, 165 forced-labor rehabilitation institutions with a capacity of 143,000 beds, and 247 voluntary rehabilitation institutions with 8,000 beds. In 2004, 273,000 drug addicts were put into rehabilitation centers and 68,000 were put into forced-labor centers.[13]{mospagebreak}

Factors That Help Drugs Spread

"Bad Neighbors"

In 2005, the Xinjiang Public Security Office discovered nine cases of "Golden Crescent" narcotics being smuggled into China by plane. They arrested 14 foreign suspects and seized 14.5 kilograms (32.5 lbs.) of heroin. The number of investigations, the amount of drugs seized, and the number of people arrested were all substantially greater than the previous year.

There are several reasons for the proliferation of drug trafficking in China. First, due to the Chinese economic and political reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, new routes from Afghanistan have emerged to complement the older ones from Burma. These reforms have made it much easier for drug networks to penetrate China’s borders. Secondly, the success of counter-trafficking efforts in Thailand has encouraged the growth of alternate routes through China in order to satisfy the growing demand in East Asia as well as North America. Thirdly, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased dramatically after the U.S.-led 2001 invasion. The new Afghan government has not been able to curtail the large-scale opium production.

Last year, according to a report from the United Nations, Burma alone harvested over 30,000 acres of opium poppy, and produced 312 tons (698,880 lbs.) of opium. Afghanistan grew 145,000 acres of opium poppy, producing 4,100 tons (3.2 million lbs.) of opium, accounting for 87 percent of the world’s output. Xinjiang, Beijing, and Guangdong all discovered batches of heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The route that traffics opium also traffics chemically synthesized narcotics, such as "ice"—in notably higher quantities. In 2005, Yunnan seized 2.62 tons (5,869 lbs.) of "ice," which accounts for 48 percent of the national average.

The foreign demand for easy-to-make drugs and narcotics and their potential profits have resulted in increased smuggling across China’s borders. This smuggling is not easy to stop, especially when domestic economic conditions have made the drug business so attractive.{mospagebreak}

Poverty, the Moral Vacuum, and the Urge To Get Rich Quick

China produces acetic anhydride, ether, methyl benzyl-ketone, piperonyl methyl alkone, potassium permanganate, and so on—all of which get smuggled to "the Golden Triangle," where they make their way to other areas of the world, including Europe and North America. In 2005, the Chinese regime seized 157.9 tons (353,696 lbs.) of easy-to-make drugs nationwide, while the Office of National Narcotics Control Commission seized 3,250 tons (7.28 million lbs.) of easy-to-make drugs through international investigation. At the same time, easy-to-make drugs have made their way into China through illegal means, and this issue has not been effectively addressed. In 2005, China destroyed a total of 34 drug processing centers. The materials and formulas were all made domestically.

The following case of domestic drug manufacturing occurred earlier this year:

On February 26, Chen Ashen, along with his cousin Chen Aqing and his brother-in-law were arrested in Dongping Village, Lianjiang County, Fujian Province, for drug manufacturing. The three of them used to be fishermen who did occasional farm work. Not long ago, they discovered a shortcut to riches—manufacturing "ice." Under the pretext of producing fish powder, they set up an "ice" processing factory in a four-story building full of drugs, raw materials, and "ice" manufacturing equipment.

In Wuhan, on the morning of April 22, the police arrested Professor Wang in the laboratory of a medical school and confiscated 430 grams (15.2 ounces) of "ice" and 406 grams (14.32 ounces) of maguo together with the equipment and tools to manufacture these drugs. Back in March, the three had contacted Dr. Wang, asking him to join their gang by helping to test the drugs. According to the authorities, the gang started the business in 2005 and the delivery to their non-local customers soon reached between one and two metric tons (2,240-4,480 lbs.) per shipment.


Official corruption and police involvement have both been identified as chief ingredients in the "rich soil" for organized crime. These same ingredients are also essential for the proliferation of the drug problem.{mospagebreak}

A case heard in the Tieling Intermediate People’s Court in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province in 2004 revealed how a typical Chinese organized crime group engaged in drug trafficking for its operating income. The gang, headed by Liu Xiaojun, first formed in 1998. By 2002, it had grown into a large-scale organized crime operation. The gang engaged in smuggling, drug trafficking, gambling, burglary, and murder. The ringleader, Liu Xiaojun, amassed a net worth of approximately 40 million yuan (US$5 million). Liu wooed and bribed officials to secure their protection for his gang members’ street activities. Liu Jun, former head of a police substation in the Shuangtaizi District of the city’s Public Security Bureau, is alleged to be a key member of the crime gang. Liu Xiaoming, former Vice Director of the Shuangtaizi Police Branch, is also suspected of being part of the gang.[14]

In addition, many people in society are quite corrupt, morally bankrupt, and driven by the get-rich-quick mentality. What has been called "mafia capitalism" has become an ever-expanding part of the Chinese economy. According to Professor Min Xia of New York City University, a study in 1996 estimated that the hidden economy amounted to 20 percent of China’s GNP. While the drug dealing accounted for 39 to 390 billion yuan (US$4.88-48.8 billion) a year, the estimated revenue from the sex industry came to at least 500 billion yuan (US$62.5 billion) a year.

For many places, "Prostitution promotes prosperity" (PPP) has been an open secret. For example, in 1998, the "sweeping out the sex industry" campaign (saohuang) in Shenzhen drove out thousands of prostitutes and bar girls. With them at least 10 billion yuan (US$1.25 billion) of saving deposits evaporated from local financial institutions within a few days. This moved the economic boom to the surrounding cities and forced the Shenzhen municipal government to rein in its campaign.

As the Chinese financial industry is not well regulated, the corruption there has made money laundering easy. Chinese drug networks have earned billions from the drug trade. As a result, leading Chinese criminal organizations have initiated a range of money-laundering operations. Some sources suggest that banks and companies in Guangzhou launder money for the Triads (Chinese mafia-type organizations). The proceeds have then been used to fund major construction projects and joint ventures in Fuzhou City, Shanghai, and Beijing.{mospagebreak}

A Newly Launched People’s War

In the past 20 years, the increased illegal trafficking and use of addictive drugs has posed a serious challenge to Chinese society. As mentioned, Asia’s two main illicit opium-producing areas-the Golden Triangle in the Southeast and the Golden Crescent in the West-both border China and are convenient suppliers for Chinese drug dealers. The first drug seizure after the country moved from a completely planned economy to one of experimental reform was reported in 1983. However, narcotics smuggling into China did not increase dramatically until the early 1990s. In recent years, China has seen a substantial increase in the production of illegally synthesized drugs, which can be readily distributed across the nation.

At present, heroin is still popular in China. According to one report, for the last three years, the national heroin usage has been around 700,000 people, or 78.3 percent of all drug users. Users younger than 35 years old constitute 69.3 percent; 30 percent are farmers, and 51.7 percent are unemployed.[15] The report states that the number of traditional drug and heroin abusers has remained at a relatively stable 700,000 over the last three years, but the abuse of new narcotics is expanding and spreading. Already in Liaoning, Jilin, and Heilongjiang provinces, new drug abusers outnumber traditional users. The club scene has become a hotbed for the new drugs. The numbers of new drugs are increasing. "Ice," ecstasy, ketamine, "sodium coffee," and triazole have a substantial consumer market in some areas, penetrating deep into society. In many cities, more and more of the younger generation, such as high school students, are falling victim to drug abuse. Because of the Chinese communist government’s ineffective handling, the drug problem has gotten out of control. The impact on society is severe, and people are openly complaining.

Conducting the People’s War

The "people’s war" and grassroots campaigns are familiar tools to the Chinese communist government. However, these tools have been used much less frequently in the last two decades because they interfere with the economy and place a high financial burden on society.

In the past, the Chinese authorities relied mainly on heavy-handed punishment to curtail drug trafficking. Under Chinese law, anyone caught with over 50 grams (1.76 ounces) of heroin or one kilogram (35.3 ounces) of opium can receive the death penalty. Government funding for drug rehabilitation is insufficient. Many rehabilitation centers are self-funded-they make money by charging a heavy fee and selling expensive medication to their drug-addict patients. When these methods failed to work, the government resorted to the practice it was most familiar with: the people’s war.{mospagebreak}

The components of a people’s war usually include (1) a propaganda campaign to create momentum, (2) engaging large number of volunteers to raise awareness and educate community members, and (3) modifying the rules and regulations that apply to the affected parties. The war being waged against drugs is no different.

The Propaganda Campaign

Recognizing the nature of the problem, the Chinese communist government launched a new "people’s war" in 2005 and banned drugs. Through support and coordination from the Central Propaganda Department, the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, and the Ministry of Public Security, major state-controlled media used substantial manpower, materials, and financial resources to propagate drug suppression. According to incomplete statistics, more than 4,500 related news stories and articles have been published. Some programs included Central Committee Television "Focal Point Interview," "Ruling by the Law Online," "News Investigation," "Face-to-Face," "News Reception Room," "Economics Half Hour," "Eastern Space and Time," "Dialogue," "First Line," "Sky Network," and many more. More than 30 popular programs were produced and more than 80 issues on more than 100 of the shows featured anti-drug material. The Ministry of Public Security’s Political Department, the Office of National Narcotics Control Commission, and CCTV collaborated in the production of a television documentary called "China to Suppress Drugs Movement." It reflected comprehensively upon China’s 20-year war on drugs, from its history to its present situation.

The Ministry of Public Security, in order to propagandize the issue, held the First National Anti-Drug Propaganda Educational Workshop in Zhejiang Province, in Ningpo City. In 28 provinces, 41 evening news programs, metropolitan newspapers, and broadcast stations joined the people’s war in disseminating news and propaganda bulletins that explained the dangers of drug addiction. The News Office of the State Council and the Ministry of Public Security together organized nine anti-drug press conferences, announcing their anti-drug stance to the world. For example, Gansu and Hainan provinces organized their own People’s War on Drugs. They featured interviews with drug addicts, their family members, local government policy makers and policemen. Fujian Province initiated its "anti-drugs in Fujian" project, which used Internet anti-drug games. The website showed hits from thousands of people.{mospagebreak}


The number of anti-drug volunteer groups is expanding and covering a larger area. At present only Yunnan, Shanxi, and others, totaling 13 provinces and cities, have established anti-drug volunteer groups. There is a total of 558 groups, with a total of 250,000 people. One such group is the Hainan Province Women’s Federation, which formed the "Thousand Villages Women’s Anti-Drug Federation." It consists of 1,050 villages throughout the province. Women who have trained to become anti-drug activists number at 210,000. At the same time, people are reporting more and more illegal drug activities to the authorities. Since eight provinces and cities have been giving out rewards for drug information, the number of drug-related arrests has risen. From January until October, Yunnan solved 1,707 drug-related cases, arrested 1,957 criminal suspects, and seized 1.8 tons (4,032 lbs.) of narcotics (18 percent of the national amount). Fujian Province has investigated 150 dance-club-related cases, 70 percent of which resulted from people reporting drug activity to the authorities.


Beijing, Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, and Shaanxi circulated a bulletin urging drug users to register. Guangxi organized its seventh drug survey, and the Inner Mongolian comprehensive drug user database has been updated. The Zhejiang City, Guizhou Province, anti-drug committee published To Identify Local Drug Users Notice, and Temporary Regulations to Monitor Drug Abusers, further regulating drug abuse monitoring and management.

A Responsibility System and Forced Labor

The Office of the National Anti-Drug Committee in conjunction with the Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Justice, jointly issued the "Urgent Notice on Further Strengthening Reeducation through Labor Rehabilitation (a euphemism for Forced Labor)," specifying that recurring abusers (after they have gone through rehabilitation once) be sent to forced labor camps. In September, the Anti-Drug Committee Office sent a letter, "Suggestions to Further Increase Drug User Abstinence" to the Anti-Drug Committees of six provinces, including Anhui and Hebei. Each province further strengthened its rehabilitation efforts. The number of people sent to compulsory rehabilitation centers and forced labor camps have both greatly increased. During the year 298,000 cases were admitted to compulsory rehabilitation centers, and 70,000 people to forced labor camps. Over the course of a year, both types of rehabilitation have respectively received 9.3 percent and 8.6 percent more cases. Among them, Yunnan Province rehabilitated 61,400 people in centers, and 12,600 people served in forced labor camps. Guangdong also rehabilitated 74,400 people in centers, and 16,400 served people in camps. Gansu Province has also fully implemented an anti-drug responsibility system, which includes educating the public, investigating suspected users, putting every user into the rehabilitation system, and giving social assistance at every level of rehabilitation.{mospagebreak}

The drug problem is rooted in the structure of society. It is related to poverty, crime, corruption, degenerating social values, and declining morality. The current effort of the Chinese communist government may have a short-term effect, as shown in the statistics of increased drug seizure and arrests. However, without addressing some fundamental issues, such as poverty, corruption, and moral decay, any efforts to get quick results may not have any lasting effect, and may not deal with the problem at its roots.

Ann Lee is a correspondent for Chinascope.

[1] People’s Daily Online at:
[3] Chen Peiti, China: Drug Survey at and
[4] Assessing HIV/AIDS Initiatives in China: A Report of the CSIS Task Force on HIV/AIDS, 2006
[5] "Injecting Drug Use Fueling Spread of HIV in China" by Drew Thompson at:
[6] Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development, China State Council
[8] Chen Peiti, China: Drug Survey at and
[15] China Daily: