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Joshua Kurlantzick covers trade and international economics for U.S. News and World Report. He visited
China’s Yunnan province in January 2002.

           China’s Drug Problem and Looming HIV Epidemic
           Joshua Kurlantzick

Since Deng Xiaoping opened China’s econo-               tribute to the destruction of China’s social
my in 1979, many Chinese cities have de-                fabric, a development that could cost Chi-
veloped a frenetic energy, the kind of 24-              na’s leader, Jiang Zemin, and his cohort
hour hubbub that comes with nonstop work                their jobs—or their heads—but would not
and play. In Hangzhou, consumer electron-               necessarily lead to a democratic Middle
ics companies feeding China’s massive tele-             Kingdom.
phone and computer markets work through
the night. In Shanghai, wealthy merchants               Supply
along Nanjing Road and other swank streets              After coming to power in 1949, Mao Ze-
who have made the city China’s retail center            dong cracked down on opium use, which
haggle with customers incessantly, the                  had risen to epidemic levels in the nine-
sounds of their jousting filtering up into the          teenth and early twentieth centuries. In a
apartments above.                                       1952 article, the New York Times noted that
     But in Kunming, capital of southwest               China was “probably the largest present
China’s Yunnan province and a city that has             source of three of the most potent addiction-
attracted little foreign investment, law en-            producing narcotics [opium and two opium
forcement officials believe the constant ener-          derivatives].”1 But by the late 1950s, Mao
gy, late-model sedans, gaudy jewelry, and               had utilized the Communist Party’s strict
other signs of prosperity often come from               social controls, as well as China’s interna-
another, less licit industry: narcotics. As             tional isolation, to nearly eradicate drug use.
China has developed close links with South-                 Yet over the past two decades, old
east Asia, a change that has coincided with             scourges have reappeared, and new drugs
Beijing’s loosening of social controls, the             such as methamphetamines and heroin have
People’s Republic has experienced an explo-             become popular as well. Running out of
sion of drug trafficking and abuse, much of             consumers in Thailand, where more than 2
it concentrated in Yunnan and several large             million people are addicted to methamphet-
coastal cities. Though China’s current drug             amines—small, pill-shaped tablets that can
habit does not yet compare to the country’s             be eaten or smoked and provide intense
nineteenth-century addiction, today use of              surges of energy similar to a cocaine high—
heroin, methamphetamines, and other drugs               Burma-based drug traffickers have shifted
is skyrocketing, and Chinese gangs have ag-             their focus to China. Most notably, north-
gressively entered the narcotics trade in Asia          east Burma’s United Wa State Army
and the West. Just as important, this nar-              (UWSA), a narco-militia composed of Wa
cotics habit is pushing China toward an                 troops, members of a fierce ethnic minority
HIV catastrophe, as Chinese injectable drug             known in the past for head hunting, has
users spread the deadly virus. Ultimately,              clearly targeted China, which borders UWSA
unless Beijing changes its policies regarding           territory. As Beijing has boosted trade links
narcotics and HIV, drug abuse could con-                with Southeast Asia, the frontiers between

70                                                                          WORLD POLICY JOURNAL   • SUMMER 2002
Yunnan, Burma, and Laos have become              with known links to drug trafficking,” the
porous—in some places, the border is just a      first time that America had labeled the Wa
low fence used primarily by heroin addicts,      terrorists, a term the official probably used
who lean on it as they shoot up with some        because UWSA traffickers have been known
of the most potent “China White” smack in        to cross into Thailand and terrorize border
the world.2                                      villages.3
     Consequently, the UWSA has been able to
effectively target the China market. Drug        Demand
control experts believe that the majority of     Young Chinese, many of whom have little
heroin and methamphetamines trafficked           hope for the future, are lapping up the
into China come from Burma. Last year,           UWSA’s products. Though the Western press
Chinese authorities made several massive         has focused on China’s rapid growth as Bei-
seizures of Burmese heroin, including one        jing has liberalized its economy, millions of
672 kilogram haul in July. Meanwhile, the        farmers and laborers have lost their jobs,
UWSA reportedly has set up numerous new          and today roughly 160 million Chinese—
methamphetamine labs in the past year,           many young, newly sexually active, and un-
and the Wa are pressuring local villagers to     educated, with little chance of finding sta-
step up poppy production. Satellite photos       ble employment—are unemployed. As the
taken this past winter show villagers in the     Chinese government has loosened restric-
Burmese highlands growing poppies out of         tions on travel over the past 20 years, many
season. Thailand worries that opium pro-         of these unemployed workers have migrated
duction in the Golden Triangle, the poppy-       to Yunnan, a center for short-term jobs, par-
growing area of Thailand, Laos, and Burma        ticularly in narcotics and in the province’s
that in 2001 was the second-largest source       thriving sex industry. Indeed, Yunnan has
of poppy in the world, could double in           become one of China’s major commercial sex
2002. Making matters worse, the UWSA has         markets. In Kunming, young girls from
formed an alliance with the 14K triad, a         Burma and Yunnan stand in the doorways of
leading Chinese organized crime group, in        flashy “nightclubs,” waiting to accompany
order to facilitate distribution of the UWSA’s   local businessmen through the door—and
products.                                        perhaps to a hotel later in the evening. In
     In some cases, drug carriers move the       smaller towns throughout the province, lo-
Wa/14K narcotics, often hidden in such in-       cal brothels cater to truckers traveling the
nocuous containers as stuffed animals and        busy Burma-Yunnan highways.
durian, a foul-smelling fruit that can cam-          In Yunnan, the first stop for UWSA nar-
ouflage scents, through China and into oth-      cotics, these migrants, many of whom are
er Asian countries and the West. Manila po-      looking for an escape from their uprooted
lice believe that Chinese gangs now distrib-     lives, often get hooked on drugs. Heroin
ute most of the methamphetamines in the          and methamphetamines are relatively cheap
Philippines, and in the past year, there         in most Chinese cities, with bingdu (meth-
have been many seizures of Burma-made            amphetamines) selling for less than $1.50
methamphetamine tablets in Europe and            per pill and heroin available for less than
Australia. Indeed, at night, the streets of      $10 per hit—affordable prices for young
Manila are crowded with child metham-            Chinese with few dependents and a willing-
phetamine addicts, who wander amid the           ness to make money by any means possible.
traffic like frail zombies, begging for          Reports from China’s drug rehabilitation
change. Washington has become so con-            centers suggest that most methampheta-
cerned about the Wa that in March a U.S.         mine and heroin users are not employed in
official called the UWSA “a terrorist group      the formal economy.

China’s Drug Problem and Looming HIV Epidemic                                                71
    From Yunnan and Gansu, another west-          resort to unsanitary practices to get their
ern province, migrants often bring heroin         fixes. Throughout southwestern China,
and methamphetamines back to their home           “shooting galleries,” where cash-strapped
provinces, usually hidden inside cars’ gas        users buy one injection of heroin and then
tanks or ingested in condoms. Back home,          pass the needle on, have become common.
many people already have learned about nar-       Some Chinese drug users inject themselves
cotics from satellite television and other        with a mixture of heroin and blood.
sources of information, and have more dis-             From Yunnan, which was one of the
posable income to spend on drugs. Though          first provinces to report high rates of HIV,
the southwest was the first area to be hit by     the virus has spread throughout China, as
a narcotics epidemic, drug usage is soaring       addicts return to their home provinces and
in Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities; drug      share needles or engage in unprotected sex,
arrests in Shanghai rose by over 80 percent       and as truck drivers who had passed through
in 2001.4 In these East Coast cities, drug        Yunnan travel around the country. In some
users tend to fall into two categories: young     provinces, HIV cases have risen from virtual-
low-income migrant workers and middle-            ly none into the hundreds in the past two
class youths who have more disposable in-         years, and in 2001 reported cases of HIV in-
come and have learned about bingdu, heroin,       fection nationwide rose by over 60 percent;
and other drugs from the media and older          in some parts of Yunnan, more than 75 per-
friends. Indeed, the government estimates         cent of intravenous drug users now are in-
that three-quarters of Chinese drug abusers       fected with HIV. The United Nations recent-
are less than 35 years old.                       ly estimated that China would have 10 mil-
    Their numbers are growing fast. Last          lion people infected with HIV by 2010, the
December, Beijing estimated that there            most in the world, and noted that the coun-
were more than 900,000 drug addicts in the        try “is on the verge of a catastrophe that
People’s Republic—compared to 70,000 in           could result in unimaginable human suffer-
1990—but independent reports put the              ing, economic loss, and social devastation.”6
number at between 6 and 7 million, more                Despite this looming epidemic, public
than 50 percent of whom are injecting             awareness of the virus or safe sex practices
drugs. Many narcotics experts estimate that       remains extremely low. Surveys have shown
within five years China will have the most        that fewer than 15 percent of Chinese know
heroin addicts of any country in the world.       how HIV is spread. In one example of this
                                                  ignorance, when a volunteer health worker
The Looming HIV Epidemic                          showed Yunnan villagers a photograph of a
Along with narcotics comes AIDS. Extremely        red condom on a white background, the vil-
dangerous blood donation practices—in             lage residents were sure they recognized the
some provinces where people make money            object and confidently told the volunteer
selling their blood, donors give blood and        that it was a picture of the Japanese flag.7
then have other donors’ blood cells pumped
back into their veins—have contributed to         Fighting Back
China’s rising HIV infection rates (HIV is the    Though the Chinese government likes to
human immunovirus that, untreated, leads          discuss drugs about as much as it enjoys a
to AIDS). But injectable drugs are responsi-      good Falun Gong demonstration, over the
ble for the majority of cases of infection: the   past two years Beijing has launched several
U.N. Drug Control Program estimates that          anti-drug programs and has increased coop-
70 percent of all HIV cases in 2001 were due      eration with other nations on multilateral
to intravenous drug use.5 Heroin and in-          interdiction, intelligence sharing, cross-
jectable methamphetamine users frequently         border prosecution, and law enforcement

72                                                                 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL   • SUMMER 2002
training. Along with Thailand, China has          junkies and planting heroin on them in or-
launched a plan to study how drug traffick-       der to meet arrest quotas set by the central
ers use the Mekong River to avoid police.         government. Beijing has dedicated some
This coordination has led to several small        funds to training Burmese anti-narcotics po-
successes: in January, Thai narcotics officers,   lice, and Jiang has become increasingly out-
acting on a tip-off, seized 14 kilograms of       spoken about the dangers posed by the
heroin near Thailand’s northern border, and       UWSA. Yet China is unwilling to push Bur-
since then the Thai army has repeatedly en-       ma too hard, since the Rangoon regime is
gaged in shootouts with drug traffickers          one of the only governments in the region
crossing into Thailand. China also has be-        that favors Beijing over Washington. Conse-
gun exchanging more information on drug           quently, the cash-strapped Burmese govern-
threats with the U.S. Drug Enforcement            ment, which allegedly takes huge kickbacks
Agency, and has sent its top police officers      from the UWSA, remains a close ally of the
to the International Law Enforcement Acad-        Wa. Though Rangoon has made a few token
emy, a U.S-run institution in Bangkok that        drug busts and last year unveiled an anti-
trains police. ILEA officials report that Chi-    narcotics museum—paid for, ironically, by
nese police who attend the academy are            Lo Hsing-han, a former drug kingpin—it
among the toughest cops they have seen;           still rarely intercepts large narcotics
unfortunately, these elite men in blue do not     shipments.8
represent the majority of China’s anti-nar-            Meanwhile, the Chinese government has
cotics agents. Meanwhile, in January, Bei-        dedicated pitifully little time or money to
jing signed a mutual extradition treaty with      funding drug or HIV education, effective re-
Manila designed primarily to deter Chinese        habilitation centers, or other demand reduc-
drug traffickers from operating in the            tion and public health measures. Beijing’s
Philippines.                                      unwillingness to allow an open discussion
     At home, the government has enacted          about narcotics use or AIDS was evident in
harsh zero-tolerance laws regarding traffick-     the furor over author Wei Hui’s novel,
ing and possession of narcotics, laws that        Shanghai Baby, which depicted scenes of
punish many drug-related crimes with exe-         drug abuse and graphic sex. Calling Wei
cution. The People’s Republic celebrated          “decadent,” “debauched,” and “a slave of for-
this year’s United Nations anti-drug day by       eign culture,” the Chinese government
executing 64 people for drug-related of-          banned Shanghai Baby in April 2000 and
fenses and by staging large drug-burning          publicly burned 40,000 copies of the book.9
rallies. Chinese officials have said they in-     One year later, Beijing prevented a doctor
tend to “strike hard” against narcotics this      who had diligently battled HIV in central
year. Previous “strike hard” campaigns            China from traveling to the United States to
against corruption were known for massive         receive a humanitarian award; in December
numbers of arrests and executions.                2001, Beijing’s leading state-run newspaper
     Unfortunately, China’s drug-control          celebrated World AIDS Day by running two
policies are unlikely to be effective, since      stories about HIV, neither of which focused
many Chinese police are involved in the           on China. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong me-
drug trade and Beijing is unwilling to pres-      dia frequently reports on the horrors of Chi-
sure Burma to crack down on poppy and             na’s few drug rehabilitation centers, where
methamphetamine production. In central            oversight is minimal and addicts receive lit-
China, villagers say that wealthy drug deal-      tle counseling, are often beaten, and easily
ers easily escape arrest by paying off the po-    obtain heroin from crooked detox guards
lice, while many anti-narcotics officers make     who push drugs to the recovering addicts.
showy “busts” by arresting small-time             Relapse rates for addicts entering these

China’s Drug Problem and Looming HIV Epidemic                                                73
mandatory rehabilitation centers are ex-         is as likely to lead to chaos or virulent na-
tremely high, and in some cases junkies          tionalism as to democracy.
have refused to leave the detox centers be-
cause they have found it so easy to obtain       The Looming Crisis
heroin while inside.                             All is not yet lost, however. China does not
    It is hardly surprising, then, that law      yet face an HIV epidemic as serious as in
enforcement sources expect drug production       Botswana, where over 35 percent of the
to grow exponentially in Southeast Asia and      population is infected, and its drug prob-
drug abuse to continue rising precipitously      lem, though severe, does not yet compare to
in China, adding to the unrest bubbling          Thailand’s addiction to methamphetamines.
just under the surface of Chinese society. In    Yet China’s drug and HIV prevention strate-
the next ten years, greater social mobility      gies currently lag behind programs devel-
and rising incomes will allow more Chinese       oped in both Thailand and Botswana, much
to experiment with narcotics and to traffic      smaller countries with fewer resources to de-
drugs, while the government’s unwilling-         vote to narcotics control and HIV prevention.
ness to fund treatment or education pro-             If China is to forestall its looming crisis,
grams—last year, it pledged a laughable          it must radically revamp its drug and HIV
$12 million toward HIV awareness—could           policies. Most important, the central gov-
come back to haunt it. China’s recent acces-     ernment should promote a culture of open
sion to the World Trade Organization,            discussion about AIDS and narcotics. In
which included lowering tariffs on foreign       Thailand, the government has supported
agriculture, will be an important factor in      condom distribution, drug and HIV educa-
liberalizing China’s economy, but it won’t       tion in schools, public-awareness campaigns,
help slow the drug crisis: accession is likely   syringe-sharing programs, and other meas-
to push millions more farmers out of work        ures; Beijing would be wise to do likewise.
and into the spiral of drug use and HIV asso-    Some provincial Chinese officials already
ciated with migrant labor.                       have taken bold steps. In 1999, officials in
    Ultimately, if China fails to reduce de-     Liangshan, a prefecture in Sichuan province,
mand, drug abuse, combined with unem-            admitted that their region had a serious HIV
ployment and increased migration, could          problem and asked the international non-
lead to more crime and more violent pro-         governmental organization Doctors With-
tests by desperate laid-off workers. Meth-       out Borders to come to the prefecture and
amphetamines in particular have been             launch prevention programs. But many
linked to violence—methamphetamine               provincial officials are afraid to follow
users in China and Southeast Asia frequent-      Liangshan’s lead, since they fear that Beijing
ly commit brutal crimes, even knifing their      will punish them for any creative ideas they
families and associates to death. Already,       develop.
protests are becoming a daily occurrence             China also should expand its network of
across China: in one gruesome demonstra-         drug treatment centers. The centers that do
tion in January, HIV sufferers in Tianjin, a     exist often are akin to Dickensian labor
city near Beijing, dramatized their suffer-      camps funded by local and provincial gov-
ing by threatening to attack pedestrians         ernments and run by corrupt guards,
with blood-filled syringes. This wave of         though Shanghai has one pilot private proj-
dissatisfaction may only need a spark to         ect focused on treating heroin addicts. The
set off nationwide unrest over unpaid pen-       central government should allow more pri-
sions, lack of political openness, labor con-    vate donors and nongovernmental organiza-
ditions, or myriad other complaints—             tions to set up centers. Privately run centers
unrest that many China scholars believe          where users voluntarily enroll are more like-

74                                                                 WORLD POLICY JOURNAL   • SUMMER 2002
ly to employ counseling, methadone substi-       Notes
tution, and medical supervision rather than           1. Kathleen McLaughlin, “Traffic in Narcotics Is
the harsh, counterproductive rehabilitation      Flourishing,” New York Times, May 11, 1952.
measures—beatings, forced labor—that                  2. Bay Fang, “On the Trail of a Killer,” U.S.
many government-linked centers favor.            News and World Report, September 3, 2001, p. 22.
    Finally, Beijing should work more                 3. “Myanmar Drug Gang: U.S. Anti-terror Tar-
closely with the United States and Thai-         get,” Straits Times, March 19, 2002.
land—two nations that it has historically             4. Gary Reid and Genevieve Costigan, “Revisit-
distrusted—to crack down on the nasty            ing ‘The Hidden Epidemic’: A Situation Assessment
Rangoon regime and their UWSA allies.            of Drug Use in Asia in the Context of HIV/AIDS”
Without abandoning its support for Ran-          (Center for Harm Reduction, United Nations Drug
goon, China could increase funding for crop      Control Program, 2002).
substitution in northeast Burma, more ex-             5. Ibid.
plicitly tie its aid to progress made by Bur-         6. Elisabeth Rosenthal, “With Ignorance as the
ma in combating narcotics production, and        Fuel, AIDS Spreads Across China,” New York Times,
even send officers to Thai-U.S. military ex-     December 30, 2001.
ercises designed to intimidate the UWSA and           7. Fang, “On the Trail of a Killer,” p. 22.
train troops in interdiction. Though many             8. Matthew Pennington, “Propaganda Habit
of Beijing’s mandarins may grimace at the        Hard to Quit as Drug Effort Showcased,” Associated
idea of Chinese soldiers training side-by-side   Press, January 11, 2002.
with U.S. forces, the sheer magnitude of              9. Tom Cox, “I Have Only Written a Love Sto-
China’s emerging drug crisis—and, more           ry,” Daily Telegraph (London), June 16, 2001.
important to officials, the possibility that
the consequences of this epidemic could de-
stroy their power—may force them to con-
sider such radical ideas.   •

China’s Drug Problem and Looming HIV Epidemic                                                       75

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