China's drug problem and looming HIV epidemic.

Author:Kurlantzick, Joshua

Since Deng Xiaoping opened China's economy in 1979, many Chinese cities have developed a frenetic energy, the kind of 24-hour hubbub that comes with nonstop work and play. In Hangzhou, consumer electronics companies feeding China's massive telephone and computer markets work through the night. In Shanghai, wealthy merchants along Nanjing Road and other swank streets who have made the city China's retail center haggle with customers incessantly, the sounds of their jousting filtering up into the apartments above.

But in Kunming, capital of southwest China's Yunnan province and a city that has attracted little foreign investment, law enforcement officials believe the constant energy, late-model sedans, gaudy jewelry, and other signs of prosperity often come from another, less licit industry: narcotics. As China has developed close links with Southeast Asia, a change that has coincided with Beijing's loosening of social controls, the People's Republic has experienced an explosion of drug trafficking and abuse, much of it concentrated in Yunnan and several large coastal cities. Though China's current drug habit does not yet compare to the country's nineteenth-century addiction, today use of heroin, methamphetamines, and other drugs is skyrocketing, and Chinese gangs have aggressively entered the narcotics trade in Asia and the West. Just as important, this narcotics habit is pushing China toward an HIV catastrophe, as Chinese injectable drug users spread the deadly virus. Ultimately, unless Beijing changes its policies regarding narcotics and HIV, drug abuse could contribute to the destruction of China's social fabric, a development that could cost China's leader, Jiang Zemin, and his cohort their jobs--or their heads--but would not necessarily lead to a democratic Middle Kingdom.


After coming to power in 1949, Mao Zedong cracked down on opium use, which had risen to epidemic levels in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a 1952 article, the New York Times noted that China was "probably the largest present source of three of the most potent addiction producing narcotics [opium and two opium derivatives]." (1) "1 But by the late 1950s, Mao had utilized the Communist Party's strict social controls, as well as China's international isolation, to nearly eradicate drug use.

Yet over the past two decades, old scourges have reappeared, and new drugs such as methamphetamines and heroin have become popular as well. Running out of consumers in Thailand, where more than 2 million people are addicted to methamphetamines--small, pill-shaped tablets that can be eaten or smoked and provide intense surges of energy similar to a cocaine high--Burma-based drug traffickers have shifted their focus to China. Most notably, northeast Burma's United Wa State Army (UWSA), a narco-militia composed of Wa troops, members of a fierce ethnic minority known in the past for head hunting, has clearly targeted China, which borders UWSA territory. As Beijing has boosted trade links with Southeast Asia, the frontiers between Yunnan, Burma, and Laos have become porous--in some places, the border is just a low fence used primarily by heroin addicts, who lean on it as they shoot up with some of the most potent "China White" smack in the world. (2)

Consequently, the UWSA has been able to effectively target the China market. Drug control experts believe that the majority of heroin and methamphetamines trafficked into China come from Burma. Last year, Chinese authorities made several massive seizures of Burmese heroin, including one 672 kilogram haul in July. Meanwhile, the UWSA reportedly has set up numerous new methamphetamine labs in the past year, and the Wa are pressuring local villagers to step up poppy production. Satellite photos taken this past winter show villagers in the Burmese highlands growing poppies out of season. Thailand worries that opium production in the Golden Triangle, the poppygrowing area of Thailand, Laos, and Burma that in 2001 was the second-largest source of poppy in the world, could double in 2002. Making matters worse, the UWSA has formed an alliance with the 14K triad, a leading Chinese organized crime group, in order to facilitate distribution of the UWSA's products.

In some cases, drug carriers move the Wa/14K...

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