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China Wages War on Opium Trade

Drug traffic from Burma to US thrives while Chinese narcotics crimes rise

WU LIN is a casualty of China's losing battle against drugs. Mr. Wu is in the Kunming Forced Detoxification Center, nestled in the hills just outside the Yunnan provincial capital of Kunming, for his second attempt to kick the drug habit. His first try a year ago lasted only a few months.

"My family is paying for me this time," says the truck driver and heroin addict, who looks older than his 28 years. "I'm afraid I might start again when I get out."

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Perched on China's southern border just across from the lush mountain poppy fields of Burma, also known as Myanmar, Yunnan Province is China's front line in the increasing drug abuse and violent narcotics trafficking spreading across China.

Antidrug police here claim they have made headway against the drug flow from Burma through China to the United States and Europe by passing new laws and tougher penalties. They're also bolstering enforcement to more than 2,000 police officials, cooperating more closely with other countries, and stepping up compulsory drug treatment.

In May, China agreed with five Southeast Asian countries to launch a $10 million joint-action plan to coordinate narcotics enforcement and control chemicals used in drug production. The program operates under the United Nations, which provided $3 million to Yunnan for its antinarcotics fight.

Growing all over

Officials claim heroin and opium hauls fell 19 percent and 45 percent respectively from 1993 to last year, virtually curbing drug movement through Yunnan. The 39,000 registered drug addicts in the province represent a one-third drop from 1990 levels. Police also insist that narcotics plants are not grown here, although they admit to having a crop-substitution program. Marijuana can be seen growing in many rural areas.

"The drugs transiting in our province are decreasing," says Chen Cunyi, the province's drug-enforcement chief.

But other officials in Yunnan and Beijing admit the drug crisis is worsening: Trafficking thrives under the eye of corrupt local officials, almost 90 percent of patients in police-run treatment centers relapse, and drug-related crime approaches epidemic proportions throughout China.

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In May, Public Security Minister Tao Siju admitted that Yunnan is a haven for international drug rings and that the quantities of seized narcotics was actually growing. He told a meeting of senior leaders that "urgent efforts are needed to crush the country's increasing drug crimes," reported the official China Daily.

China needs to "organize a battle of the whole society against drugs," says Jiang Pusheng, a police official who heads the Yunnan Narcotics Control Commission. "We have reduced the number of new users in our province and made great progress in the narcotics-control field. But the fact is the source of drugs is outside our country. So the problem is still very serious."

"Drugs are the major cause of rising crime in China," says a Western diplomat familiar with China's drug-enforcement efforts. "Every province now has a detoxification center, showing how widely the drug problem has spread."

Along with addiction, a dangerous offshoot, acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS is also on the rise in China. With intravenous drug use spreading beyond Burmese border communities to coastal and other inland provinces, Chinese health officers admit that the number of AIDS-infection cases, officially estimated at 1,500, is probably closer to 10,000.

Stunned by the resurgence of the drug problem that thrived under imperial and nationalist governments but was virtually wiped out after the Communist victory in 1949, Chinese authorities maintain a rigid approach to dealing with such complicated social issues. For decades, Communist officials pointed to the eradication of opium as well as other prerevolutionary vices such as prostitution and gambling as evidence of the superior morality of socialism.

Now they are in a dilemma as market-style reforms and modernization have opened up previously isolated provinces like Yunnan and freed millions of businessmen, workers, and farmers from tight government controls. A continuing police-state mentality has left China unable to acknowledge the severity of the crisis and explore alternative solutions.

"When the window is open, fresh air comes in," says Yunnan Vice Governor Liu Jing, downplaying the problems. "There might also be some mosquitos and flies. But in my opinion, the fresh air is more important than the mosquitos."

In Kunming, a booming city of 3.7 million people where drugs are sold openly on streets, official denial merely reinforces public ignorance. Western observers familiar with the city estimate Kunming has over half of the province's estimated 100,000 heroin addicts.

'It's under effective control'

"Even though we have serious drug problems from neighboring countries, we have ways to take control and keep our society stable," says the city's mayor, Wang Tingchen. "We have the drug problem under effective control and have very strict control of the AIDS disease."

At the government-run Yunnan Women's Federation, Li Yi, an official in charge of social-welfare programs, says the organization has begun to run counseling classes to warn women, mainly in border areas, about the dangers of drug abuse and AIDS.

But mostly, she says, prostitutes are given stern, Communist-propaganda-style lectures. "We teach them that prostitution is no good, shameful, against the country's traditional morals, and not liked by the government," she says firmly.

Western diplomats who have visited the area say the flood of money from drug barons, many of them ethnic Chinese headquartered across the border in Burma, is corrupting government and police officials alike. Not far from former French colonial enclaves of white bungalows and shaded canals, a modern Kunming of glass office towers is booming, in part because of the wave of drug-related prosperity, Western observers say.

With the wealth, though, have come rising crime and involvement of local officials in drug trafficking, Yunnan narcotics-enforcement officials say. Local police officials have to deal with more than 20 armed smuggling cases yearly, and eight drug-enforcement agents have been killed in recent years, they say.

Provincial officials also have become concerned in the last year about local officials who are co-opted into the drug trade or who even resell confiscated narcotics.

"Many times, when drugs are smuggled, weapons and grenades are also included," says Mr. Jiang, the narcotics-enforcement official. "Since last year, we have stepped up our vigilance and tried to more closely control the supply of drugs."

Dealing with drug abuse and addiction remains the domain of the police, despite the high failure rate of their facilities. At the 600-bed detoxification center outside of Kunming, more than 11,000 addicts, most aged 25 years or younger, have undergone several months of treatment only to fall back into drug use after release, officials here admit. If caught a second time, addicts are sentenced to a labor camp.

Nouveau riche

In courtyards, drug addicts apprehended and forced to undergo treatment were marched in military-style for the benefit of visiting journalists. Inside the building, other patients danced and sang self-criticisms. "Forgive me, Mom. I was at fault. I shouldn't use drugs. Now I'm at fault, and I miss my family," crooned one.

In the facility's voluntary ward, more than 60 young people, many of them part of China's nouveau riche - committed by their families, which pay $200 for a two-month stay - were under treatment. Lin Li, a 22-year-old hotel employee from Shanghai who used heroin for three years, had been brought by her mother to the facility with a reputation as the best in China, she said.

Unlike many of her friends, Ms. Lin says she is confident she won't start again after being released. "If you don't trust yourself, who can you trust? My ability is a little bit stronger than others," she says. "I know many who start again after giving up."

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