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Old Habit Has China in Its Grip

Banished by the Communists, opium is back with a vengeance -- as heroin. Now ordinary citizens are uniting to fight it.

January 15, 2003|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

ERGU, China — One boy's sister was crushed by a train after she pumped heroin into her veins and passed out on the tracks. A young man became an addict in the city; his parents carried his body home to this village in a box. The father of two girls overdosed, and their mother is hooked.

Heroin-related tragedies are as common as the dried twigs that locals scavenge and burn to stay warm in this hardscrabble ethnic enclave in Sichuan province, along China's new drug trail. Though remote by distance and developmental standards from the country's booming coastal cities, Ergu and its 2,700 people are on the cutting edge of an emerging national health crisis.

"At one point, you could look out onto the field and you wouldn't find a single young person working. Everybody is taking drugs: men, women, even 11- and 12-year-old kids," Mahai Muji, 35, a former addict, said from his windowless mud hut.

The situation grew so desperate that village elders banded together a couple of years ago to form the country's first known village-based anti-drug brigade. It's part of a wave of alternative remedies springing up across China -- from acupuncture to herbal cures -- to combat soaring drug abuse and ineffective treatment by the central government.

The villagers had no experience and no outside aid. They asked hundreds of families, many making only about $60 a year, to chip in 25 cents each. They slaughtered a cow and drank a toast of fresh chicken blood -- an ancient declaration of war against a devastating modern plague.

"If we don't do something about it now, there won't be any children left to save," said Ma Quzhe, 53, head of the brigade.

Opium has long been used here, since even before Europeans began importing the drug into China in the 19th century as a dubious way of offsetting a growing trade imbalance. The Qing Dynasty fought back unsuccessfully in the Opium Wars, losing Hong Kong and other enclaves to European rule in the process, and China became known for its dark and smoky opium dens populated by addicts.

Communist China's founding fathers made it a priority to erase that humiliating past. Within a few years of taking power in 1949, they shut down the opium parlors, plugged the inflow of foreign drugs and swept pipe-smoking zombies into the pages of history books.

"It was one of the triumphs of communism," said Chris Beyrer, an expert on the current Chinese drug epidemic with Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "To see it come back is extremely sensitive. The Communist Party does not want the world to know it's come back on their watch. But it has, big-time."

Blame it on the extraordinary social changes sweeping the world's most populous country. Reforms starting in the 1980s turned the stagnant communist economy into one of the more dynamic in the world. The Chinese benefited from increases in personal freedom, social mobility and international trade. The greater openness also created an environment for the return of the drug scourge.

According to a government report, China counted about 148,000 registered drug users in 1991. By the end of 2001, that figure had soared to more than 900,000. Some independent reports estimate the number is about 7 million. The government is increasingly concerned about the epidemic's potential to cause more economic damage and social instability.

Officials have every reason to be alarmed.

Most drug users are younger than 35 and are taking their heroin intravenously, which leaves them vulnerable to this opium derivative's other great danger: the risk of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. China officially estimates it has 1 million people with the human immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to AIDS. Outside experts believe the infection pool could be twice that. The sharing of needles by drug users and the growing migrant population contribute to the disease's spread.

A recent report by the U.S. government's National Intelligence Council projects 10 million to 15 million HIV/AIDS cases in China by the end of the decade. That would mean China and Nigeria would be tied as the second worst-hit nations, behind India, in total numbers of cases.

"This is definitely a wake-up call," said Tao Hong, a project manager for Save the Children, a British nonprofit organization running a program to fight the spread of HIV in Yunnan province.

Not that Beijing is ignoring the escalating problem. China boasts some of the toughest penalties for drug-related offenses; for example, it executed 64 people accused of drug crimes in June to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse. The government has vowed to intensify its crackdowns and work more closely with other countries, including the United States, to fight drug use. But for now, the battle appears to be a losing one.

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