Heroin Addiction Is Devastating Chinese Villages
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. While 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's 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.
AIDS Adds to Peril: Blame the drug problem 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 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.
Most drug users are younger than 35, 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.
Beijing is not 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 still appears to be a losing one.
China has plenty of state-run rehabilitation centers. But they function more like prisons and treat drug users like criminals. Drug counseling is rare. Some addicts even find it easier to buy drugs from crooked guards inside the detox centers than on the streets. Not surprisingly, the failure rate at these facilities is alarmingly high: Relapses are estimated at between 70 percent and 90 percent.
Dealers Pick Prey: The majority of China's heroin supply comes from Southeast Asia. Like retailers all over the world, the traffickers have zeroed in on this nation's potential market of 1.3 billion people. Among their first targets have been disenfranchised ethnic minorities, who tend to live in poverty in remote border regions near the transit points where drugs are plentiful and cheap.
In pockets of Yunnan and Xinjiang, regions bordering such drug-producing nations as Myanmar and Afghanistan, HIV prevalence among drug users runs as high as 50 percent and 85 percent, respectively, according to the United Nations.
Tucked deep within the mountains of Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, Ergu is fast on its way to becoming a similar disaster zone. The area is historically part of China's opium-growing territory and straddles an ancient trade route known as the Southern Silk Road.
Since the 1980s, the ethnic Yi of southern China have been leaving home in droves, joining an avalanche of unemployed workers and idle farmers crisscrossing the land searching for a piece of the new economic miracle. Many journey to the nearby cities of Chengdu and Kunming, gateways for illegal drugs arriving from Southeast Asia. As many as 90 percent of these low-skilled workers can't find jobs, according to Fang Guangxing, the Liangshan prefecture's deputy Communist Party secretary.
So, many turn to drug trafficking. A dealer can make more money in a day than a farmer makes in a year. Some of their best customers are other migrants from their villages.
"They hooked us by giving it to us for free in the beginning," said Mahai Zhizhen, who took his first hit of heroin when he was 14. Like most young migrants from Ergu, he has never spent a day in school and speaks only the language of the Yi people. Soon after arriving in Chengdu, Sichuan province's capital, he was recruited into a gang of thieves. Together, they picked pockets to support their habits and shared needles as well.
Now 18, Mahai Zhizhen has returned to the village and is in recovery under the watchful eyes of the brigade. He doesn't know if he has AIDS or HIV. But he did test positive for tuberculosis, and that scared him enough to want to quit.
"I saw too many people die. Seventeen are from my hometown," said the teen, coughing thick puddles of spit onto the red earth.
Unlike state detox centers, the village brigade in Ergu gets to know teens and offers them tough love emphasizing community and family support.
"We don't run a prison, so they don't have to be afraid of us," said Mahai Muji, the former addict, who is now a brigade captain. He is not related to the teenager, though they share a last name that is common here.
"We try to be more like parents. We teach them the importance of helping themselves to avoid bringing shame to the family," he said.
About 300 people take turns patrolling the dozen or so small villages in this hilly region, home to about 15,000 residents. There's no money to hire transportation, so they walk -- usually at night, guided by donated flashlights and the moon.
"It takes at least six hours to survey the entire area. Sometimes, we don't finish until sunrise," Mahai Muji said.
When they find suspected junkies, the volunteers work with family members to persuade the users to quit. When that doesn't work, brigade members lock them in their homes until they are clean.
On the surface, the system appears to be working. The rate of relapse is reportedly about 40 percent, far better than at government facilities. Few people dare to do drugs openly in the villages these days. Those who quit say they are grateful.
"I stopped because they told me I could die and leave my children behind," said Qumo Aqu, 30, a mother of three. Her husband was traveling for work when she bought her first taste of heroin from returning villagers. She smoked away $2,500, an unthinkable sum that left the family deep in debt.
Brigade members use their limited resources to spread their message, borrowing the old-fashioned tactics of communist guerrillas. They draw skulls and poppy flowers on blackboards and add a warning: "A beautiful killer." They blast disco music from boomboxes in the middle of a village. When a crowd gathers, they sing songs and stage skits about the harms of xidu -- literally, "inhaling poison."