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Tuesday, 6 June, 2000, 15:23 GMT 16:23 UK
China's drugs boom
By Duncan Hewitt in Beijing

Beijing skyline
Cities like Beijing have a growing drugs trade
The casual visitor to any of China's big cities could be forgiven for thinking this was a country without a serious drug problem - streets full of people who look either too smart and law-abiding, or simply not wealthy enough to be users of proscribed drugs.

Yet in a leafy backstreet in one of Beijing's quieter residential areas there is a reminder of how deceptive appearances can be.


At least 100 people are reported to have been executed for drug trafficking in 1999

Outside the Chaoyang district court is a noticeboard with details of forthcoming criminal trials; a quick look one day recently revealed that about a third of some 25 cases listed were of people accused of drug dealing.

While the Chinese authorities paid limited attention to the return of the drugs trade amid the breakneck economic reforms of the 1980s, the problem has now become hard to ignore.

'Designer drugs'

Official figures say 57,000 people were arrested last year for drug trafficking or drug production, up eight percent from a year earlier, and at least 100 people are reported to have been executed for drug trafficking in 1999.


China is facing a surge of drugs from across its borders

The scale of the crimes is growing too. In March a court in Huizhou in southern Guangdong province sentenced four people to death and eight others to prison for manufacturing one and a half tonnes of 'ice'.

Yang Fengrui, head of the narcotics squad in China's police ministry, said recently that seizures of the designer drug increased tenfold last year - and police believe the 16 tonnes they got their hands on may be only the tip of this particular 'iceberg'.

Mr Yang also said that the drug, never detected in China until 1997, has now been found in two thirds of the country's provinces.

The spread of ice (also known as methamphetamine) can be partly explained by the fact that China is the world's largest natural source of ephedrine, from which the drug is derived.

But China is also facing a surge of drugs from across its borders, both from Central Asia, and from the south-west - where Yunnan province borders the notorious Golden Triangle region of Burma and Laos.

Chinese police have in recent years begun tentative cooperation with neighbouring governments, as well as with international anti-drug agencies. But drugs continue to flow into the country, either for shipment to markets in Asia and the west, or for Chinese consumers - last year five tons of heroin were seized, while ecstasy and other designer drugs are also spreading.

Tough punishment

Police say if foreign sources are not cut off, China will be unable to solve its drug trafficking problem.


Sympathy for drug addicts is still limited

The number of registered drug addicts in China is 680,000 - almost three quarters of them users of heroin. That may not seem much for a country with close to 1.3 billion people. But that figure represents a 15% increase during 1999 alone; and the true number of addicts is widely acknowledged to be far higher - not least because many drug users were too scared of being treated as a criminal to register for treatment.

In recent years officials have finally begun to offer rehabilitation rather than outright punishment, but sympathy for drug addicts is still limited.

The challenge for China now is that drug use has spread out of remote ethnic minority areas in the south-west and a few big coastal cities, into wider society.

Intravenous drug use is officially listed as the main cause of the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS in China; while drugs of various types have found markets in the night clubs of the big city, and among disaffected young people in many areas of the country. Drug rehabilitation centres are planned in 742 counties around the country over the next two years

There have also been public information campaigns, with posters and exhibitions.

But despite increased official concern, experts still doubt whether the authorities have the resources to keep up with the rapid spread of drugs.

If they are to succeed they will also have to stamp out the collusion of local officials in drug trafficking in some areas, as well as the return of the cultivation of opium poppies, for which more than 4,000 people were punished last year.

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