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Heroin and opium use have become problems in China as more and more heroin and opium produced in the Golden Triangle in Myanmar and Laos, flow through southern China and make their way to Chinese users. Ergu is a small town in Sichuan on one of the main heroin smuggling routes. Drugs use and addiction have become serious problems there. One former addict told the Los Angeles Times. “At one point, you could look out into the field and you wouldn’t find a single person working. Everybody is taking drugs: men, women, even 11- and 12-year-old kids.”

The use if heroin is increasing at an alarming rate throughout China. The drug is cheap and available in the cities, and is widely used in the migrant communities. Some addicts are able to keep their habit going and pay rent with low-paying jobs.

Snorting, injecting and smoking heroin is becoming increasingly more popular in the nightclubs and discos in Beijing and Shanghai. One 29-year-old addict told the Washington Post he started smoking heroin when he was 15. “My family is well-educated. My parents gave me everything I wanted. At that time, drugs had started to appear in society. And we didn’t know how addictive they were. We were just curious. We inhaled heroin and stayed at bars late at night.” He said many of his clubbing buddies have switched to ecstacy.

Many addicts begin as unemployed migrant workers and turn to dealing and smuggling drugs because they can’t find any other form of employment and the money is good. In many cases they can earn as much in one day as a courier or dealer as they can working for a whole year as a farmer. Later, they become hooked themselves when they are encouraged to use the drugs by their suppliers who often give them free samples.

Pakistan, Thailand, Iran and China account for most of the world's heroin consumption. China and India are believed to have the fastest growing market. In these places prices are low and total sales is probably less than $10 billion.

Opiates use: percentage of the population aged 15-64: 0.2 percent (2003, compared to 3.31 percent in Iran, 1.04 percent in the United States and .004 percent in Singapore. [Source: World Drug reports of 2011 and 2006 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Hashish, China Not so Special blog china.notspecial.org ; Cannabis History walnet.org/rosebud ; Opium Trade in China druglibrary.org

Heroin Addicts in China

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Chasing the dragon
There are an estimated 3 to 7 million addicts in China. The number of officially registered addicts increased from 148,000 in 1991 to 520,000 in 1995 to 681,000 in 1999 to 900,000 in 2001. According to one survey, three quarters of the addicts are male; 75 percent are under 25 and many are unemployed.

Half of China's registered drug addicts are in the Yunnan province, near the border of Burma, Laos and Vietnam, where drugs are smuggled and heroin and opium are cheap and plentiful. Until the mid-1990s, drug deals where performed openly in Kunming where China White sells for $12 a gram. In Ruili on the Burmese border it sells for only $5 a gram.

Addiction rates are also high in areas near the Afghanistan border in Xinjiang and among migrant workers in the coastal cities, where many of the crimes are committed by addicted migrants. Drug addiction has become a problem for some ethnic groups in Yunnan such as the Bai.

There are lots of sad and terrible stories out there related to heroin use. The Los Angeles Times described a young girl who was crushed to death by a train after she did so much heroin she passed out on some railroad tracks. The newspaper also described children whose mothers were addicts and whose fathers died of overdoses and extended families that were ruined by members who were addicts and ran up huge debts.

AIDS and Drug Use in China, See AIDS

Heroin Smuggling in China

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle area in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam is purified into heroin in jungle laboratories and smuggled into Yunnan province in China, where it is delivered to Chinese syndicates who ship the heroin to Kunming and then to Shanghai, Hong Kong and another coastal cities where it is loaded onto one of the thousands of ships that leave for North America, Europe or some intermediary point every day.

Most Golden Triangle opium and heroin is produced in Myanmar. China is now believed to be the main transit point for heroin from Myanmar to the United States. It is now estimated that two thirds of the heroin on the streets in New York originates in Myanmar and passes through China. These days large amounts of methamphetamines produced in Myanmar are also smuggled through China.

The drug deals are often financed by ethnic Chinese. According to U.S. News and World Report: "A broker...might be approached by another broker representing a Hong Kong businessmen who want to invest in a shipment of heroin...the investors strike a deal with a group of ethnic Chinese in the United States — for example, New York businessmen who own legitimate restaurants or retail stores. The heroin may change hands several more times between these U.S. importers and street retailers, who for the most part are not Chinese but Italian-American, African-American and Dominican."

A Chinese national by the name of Tan Xiaolin is believed to have moved three tons heroin between Myanmar and Hong Kong before he was arrested in 2001. He lived in a huge pink-and-green villa in China only a hundred meters form the Myanmar border. The powerful drug lord Liu Ming was killed in Burma after an attempt to arrest him ended in a firefight. He had his own army and smuggled large amounts of heroin from the Golden Triangle into various parts of China.

Wa, the Chinese and Myanmar’s Illegal Drugs

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss, who visited Wa area in Myanmar, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new — albeit dirt — roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China. Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars — they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.” |||

See the Wa drug operations under Illegal Drugs in Myanmar

Heroin Smuggling Between Myanmar and China

Most of the heroin and opium smuggled into China from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam are hidden in truckloads of timber, fruits and tea that pass through Yunnan on their way to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other Chinese coastal cities. Much of it ends up in Hong Kong or the free-trade zones in southern Guangdong. Smugglers are generally paid around $1,000 to carry a kilo across the border from Muse, Myanmar to Ruili, China or $10,000 a kilo to transport all the way to Hong Kong.

The Burma-Chinese connection began in the 1980s when Chinese migrants began traveling to Burma to work on poppy farms. Some of these people began trafficking. The drug trade has transformed sleepy Chinese border towns, such as Ruili near Myanmar, into boom towns with karaoke bars, hostess clubs, drugs and prostitutes. "Our village used to quiet," a local elder told Newsweek. "Now there's heroin smoking, drinking, gambling. It's gotten kind of chaotic.”

By some estimates 20 percent of China’s illegal drug traffic passes through Lancang Prefecture in southwest Yunnan and 85 percent of the arrests in this part of Yunnan are in the village of Banlao. The price for slipping into Burma and bringing back a backpack full of heroin or amphetamines is as high as $120,000 — an inviting temptation in a land of peasants that earn less that $200 a year.

China's economic reforms have created a climate that is ideal for drug smuggling. So many consumer goods are smuggled and legitimately carried in and out China that it is not much more trouble using the same routes to smuggle drugs. Economic freedom given to the 20 or so major ethnic minorities in the Yunnan Province has made it easier for these groups to set up smuggling operation with their ethnic kin in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam.

Drug trafficking has also created a corruption problem. Policemen and soldiers are usually poorly paid and the temptation to accept bribes is hard to resist. Drug dealers say they can usually escape arrest by paying off policemen. Out of fear of attacks from traffickers, the governor of Yunnan is protected by 100 bodyguards.

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Heroin Smuggling From China to the Rest of the World

In Hong Kong, smuggling groups with international connections take and moved the heroin to Sydney, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Much of the heroin bound for the United States makes its way to Mexico because it is easier to move it from there into the United States than directly into the United States. Relatively few details are known about the how smuggling is actually done.

The China White trade is profitable and enduring because it is run like a terrorist organization not a corporation. Unlike the Columbian cocaine cartel, which tried to control the entire trade from production to sales on the streets, different cells handle different phases of the trade, often without knowing what the other is doing. If there is a break in one phase, it can easily be replaced.

China White heroin smuggled across the border into the United States is worth about $40,000 to $55,000 in the San Diego area to $85,000 to $100,000 in Los Angeles. Heroin that follows this route to the East Coast is worth about $200,000 a kilo in New York.

Heroin War Zone in China

Describing the drug trafficking along China's southern border, one U.S. drug official said, "It's like Bogotá Columbia, for a thousand miles."

The area around the town of Pingyuan near the Vietnam border has been called a war-zone. More than 2,000 Peoples Armed Police are stationed here. In one battle between police, armed with flame throwers, machines guns and armored personnel carriers, and drug dealers and a corrupt police official 24 people were killed. In another raid police seized more than 8,000 grenades and land mines.

An August 1992 drug bust in Pingyuan nabbed 854 drug suspects and seized 900 kilograms of heroin. One drug official told Newsweek, "These traffickers were heavily armed with automatic weapons and grenades. They had fortified homes with internal tunnels and secret passageways between floors. I've never seen anything like it."

Drug traffickers have attacked government security bureaus and beaten to death two anti-drug cadres. According to one report, a police official that ordered the arrest of a big dealer, had his head cut off and displayed on a stake. Another official was found shot to death with 7 bullet holes in his body. One western drug official told the New York Times, "It's a wide open area. I'd rather be a drug trafficker than a policeman. The odds are better."

Drug Treatment, Chinese Style

Drug treatment under the Communist has traditionally been more of a punishment than a treatment. In most cases, heroin addicts that receive any kind of help are rounded up and sent to military detoxification centers where they are thrown into barracks and forced to withdraw from drugs cold turkey with the help of herbal medicines, accupuncture and heavy labor. The addicts then spend three months living in cells, sleeping on mats and eating gruel passed through a hole in their cell door. Sometimes women addicts are accompanied by their children in the cells.

There are 600 compulsory detoxification facilities run by the police plus tougher re-edcuation centers run by the Justice Department for repeat offenders. Both are military-lilke facilities that include manual labor as part of their treatment. In addition to these there are 200 voluntary drug rehab centers.

The main treatment center near Kunming is run by the police and is home to around 2,000 addicts. The program there is regarded as one of the most progressive in China. Addicts go through a three month program in which they spend their days doing calisthenics, marching around the campus, making plastic bags, washing clothes, singing in a chorus, and attending lectures about hygiene and drug laws by white-coated doctors in a room with the slogan “Resolutely Fight the Damage from Drugs” written on the wall. Methadone is provided for a week to 10 days if needed. Addicts have to pay $725 to cover the costs of their stay and make toy dolls puppets dressed in local minority costumes to earn money. They grow tomatoes and raisie pigs so they have skills when they get out.

The Kunming facility has adopted many American-style rehabilitation techniques such as group meetings in which addicts place their arms around each other and recite the matra of a New York-based treatment center: “I am here because there is no refuge. Until I confront myself in the eyes and hearts of others. I am running."

The treatment centers have spotty records. Studies have show that 85 percent of addicts at the Kunming center go back to heroin, compared to around 75 percent at treatment centers in the United States. Often the people who run the institutions are interested most in making profits off the products the addicts make. Drug users say there are often able to buy drugs from guards

Some villages have formed anti-drug brigades, which use tough love techniques mixed with some sympathy and understanding. Some villages have reported a 40 percent success rate. Their education campaign includes drawing skulls and poppy flowers on school blackboards and playing a boomboxes until crowds shows up and then singing anti-drug songs.

In 2006, the Chinese government announced plans to open 300 needle-exchange centers for intravenous drugs users as part of its effort to halt the spread of AIDS. At that time 91 such centers were already open nationwide.

Drug Addicts at a Chinese Christian Rehab Center

Some drug addicts in the villages of Yunnan province near Myanmar have turned to a Christian rehab centers for help overcoming their addiction. Denise Hruby wrote in Sixth Tone: “ Minus a handful of Bibles and a poster of Jesus, the dark, stuffy room where a group of men hold mass every Sunday looks nothing like a church. “A long night covers the road ahead. This is the road I must walk, but you are my lamp, my light on the road, ” they sing piously, most of their tenors and deep baritones off-key. The lyrics resonate with the group, who have voluntarily come to this Christian-run rehabilitation center with hopes of leaving behind drug addiction, with God as their guide.

“Located on the outskirts of Baoshan, a city of 2.5 million in southwestern China, just a few hours’ drive from the Myanmar border, the Yunnan Baoshan Gospel Rehabilitation Center is a safe haven for up to 70 men, for whom faith is the integral component of their recovery. For 18 months, they will live within the confines of the center and spend their days worshipping God, praying, and studying the Bible.

“Cao Yufa, a drug addict whose parents are Christian, has been here since November after he failed to respond to compulsory and self-administered rehab. “We cannot rely on ourselves to come clean, ” he said, repeating the center’s basic tenet. “We can only rely on God.” Cao, like many in this region, began using drugs when he moved to neighboring Myanmar, where logging the tropical hardwood promised a good income for Chinese men with little education.

“Reverend Xu Chengyun knows this firsthand. Wearing a tie with “God Bless” emblazoned on it in English, the tall, 45-year-old Xu founded the Gospel Rehab Center. From an early age, he learned what addiction meant from watching his grandfather, a lifelong opium smoker. Xu remembers how his grandfather was always short on money, even selling his wife’s and children’s belongings to sustain his addiction. “Because I had a family member [in this situation], I am sensitive to the topic, ” he said.

“Later, as a priest serving 30,000 Christians in Baoshan, Xu saw how many addicts flocked to the church seeking help. He knew that a rehab center could help them, and he also saw an opportunity to spread the word of God. “If you only spread the doctrine inside the church, people [outside] won’t know about it, ” he said. In Xu’s mind, social work offered a chance for the church to reach out to non-Christian.

“In 2007, the year his grandfather passed away, Xu opened the Gospel Rehab Center. Each resident is assigned a small bed in a dorm, along with a nightstand containing a Bible. After they wake up, they pray and have a modest breakfast in the dining area. Residents’ days are uneventful: Some of them exercise, some practice playing the guitar or the keyboard, some tend to the center’s beehive, and some maintain the vegetable garden. All of them study the Bible.

“A few years ago, Xu’s church opened another center in Ruili, a city along the Myanmar border. The government there supports the church’s activities as an alternative to compulsory, state-run centers where drug users are subjected to “education through labor.” There has been some effort to provide better alternatives to these centers, which have been compared to forced labor camps and prisons. A 2008 law stipulated that rehab should be more progressive-minded than simply locking people away, and weaning-off approaches like methadone therapy have started to emerge.

Treatment at Christian Chinese Drug Rehab Center

Denise Hruby wrote in Sixth Tone: “Cao spent eight months in a” Chinese-government-run “compulsory rehabilitation center, where he fashioned small parts for electronic devices 12 hours a day. Rudimentary tattoos showing a faded rose and the Chinese character for “dragon” on his hands serve as lasting, concrete memories of that time. [Source: Denise Hruby Sixth Tone, May 22, 2017]

“When Cao was released from the state program, he soon began using again, and when his brother and father later intervened to help him come clean, they failed. Late last year, Cao’s family took him to the Gospel Rehab Center. “The moment I walked through the door, I felt as if I were home, ” Cao said. “It was so welcoming that my heart melted.” To outsiders, this may sound like hyperbole, but many of those staying at the center feel that Gospel Rehab has saved them. Without it, they reason, they’d be at home taking drugs, in prison, in a compulsory rehab center — or worse.

“Regardless of whether they believed in God before, these recovering addicts are now practicing Christians. Cao said he is focusing on his recovery for now, but he’s also thinking about the future. He’d love to sign up for Bible study classes after graduating from the Gospel Rehab program, but he’s also aware that he’ll have to consider his wife and two kids at home, and how best to support them. Over the years, he’s gone months without seeing them. “No longer afraid of the darkness, no longer afraid of the long journey, no longer feeling sorrow, because Jesus is with us, ” Cao sings, one voice among the chorus of recovering addicts. “Don’t look back again.”

“Xu claims that half of the addicts at his center give up and leave, while the rest stay for the full 18 months. The Gospel Rehab Center does not keep track of all of its graduates, but Xu said many go on to participate in Bible study classes in the city center, and some are given the chance to work at the center’s nearby chili farm, a halfway house of sorts where they receive a salary, room, and board.

“Measuring exactly how faith affects substance abuse treatment is difficult, but some studies have shown a correlation between religion and lower suicide rates, lower addiction relapse rates, lower depression rates, and higher self-esteem. Some researchers also believe that religion helps prevent people from becoming addicted in the first place, as it provides “a better kind of high.” “Jesus, Xu affirms, has the power to cure people of their addictions. “Previously, their brains produced dopamine through stimulation by drugs, ” he said. “Now, that dopamine is stimulated by the love of Jesus.”

Image Sources: DEA

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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