Drug addiction as morality tale: behind China’s anti-drugs campaign

Drug addiction as morality tale: behind China’s anti-drugs campaign

Stories of drug addiction form a backdrop to the Chinese government’s current crackdown on illicit drug use, writes GUY RAMSAY.

The Chinese government is currently carrying out a nationwide crackdown on illicit drug use. Jaycee Chan, son of famous Chinese actor Jackie Chan, has been a noted victim of the crackdown. Jaycee’s and Jackie’s public responses to the arrest have been unreservedly contrite. Significantly, and not unexpectedly, Jaycee’s account of his illicit drug use was very much in line with the stories that are commonly told about drug addiction in present-day China.

Jaycee Chan, son of famous Chinese actor Jackie Chan, is a noted victim of the crackdown (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Drug addiction has developed into a major social concern in China since the initiation of the open-door reform program after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Previously, Mao had successfully used totalitarian state control to eliminate drug addiction from mainland Chinese society after the Communist victory in 1949.The 2011 figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) show that 5 in 1,000 mainland Chinese adults currently use opiates (natural opium products) or opioids (synthetic products that behave like opiates).

The UNODC figures also establish that heroin remains the leading illicit drug of addiction on the mainland, accounting for around 4 in 5 cases of addiction. Amphetamine and methamphetamines account for the remaining 1 in 5 cases.

Incomplete 2013 UNODC data, nevertheless, points to an emerging problem with ketamine addiction in mainland China. It has long been a serious problem in neighbouring Hong Kong, especially among youth. A New York Times report from earlier this year also claims that methamphetamine addiction is overtaking heroin addiction in mainland China’s major cities. This would replicate the current trend in drug addiction in Taiwan.

Storytelling is commonly used by people to make sense of social phenomena and experiences such as drug addiction. The stories that people tell are culturally and temporally located. Stories told in Australia will be subject to differing discursive influences from those told in China. Similarly, stories told during the Republican era in China were subject to differing discursive influences from those told in present-day China.

The historical narrative of drug addiction in China is well documented. Key elements of this narrative include the pervasiveness of opium addiction in China at the time and how it led China and Great Britain to war over opium imports. The British, of course, were victorious and subsequently were ceded Hong Kong, a territory that remained highly dependent on narcotic revenues right up to the mid-twentieth century.

The Chinese people were enslaved by opium addiction and the Chinese state was enslaved by the imperialist occupiers that supplied the opium.

Opium, in fact, had been used in China since the Tang Dynasty of the seventh to tenth centuries. Its medicinal use evolved into recreational use by the elites during the Ming Dynasty of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. During the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth to early twentieth centuries, opium use spread across all strata of Chinese society. It’s been estimated that, by the turn of the twentieth century, the number of opium users in China numbered around 2.5 per cent of the total population—and increased several-fold during the Republican era of the first half of the twentieth century. Most of these opium users were men, although some there are claims that women made up the ranks of opium users in the large coastal cities.

During this time, the prevailing narrative of drug addiction in China became linked to one of national salvation. Resistance against the scourge of opium addiction became equated to resistance against the imperialist powers that now occupied many parts of China. The Chinese people were enslaved by opium addiction and the Chinese state was enslaved by the imperialist occupiers that supplied the opium. Death awaited the Chinese people and the Chinese state, unless they could free themselves from these scourges.

Moral failure

This nationalistic narrative of drug addiction, ironically, aligned with the Christian narrative of drug addiction propagated by foreign missionaries at the time. The presence of the imperialist powers in China meant that Christian missionaries were free to proselytise in China. These missionaries preached that opium addiction signified personal moral failure and that addicts could only ever overcome their addiction by building new lives through converting to Christianity. This notion of ‘new life’ that lay at the core of the Christian narrative neatly tallied with the notion of ‘national awakening’ and salvation being propagated by the Chinese nationalists.

Vestiges of the nationalistic-cum-Christian historical narrative endure in contemporary stories of drug addiction. The prevailing cultural narrative, retold in Chinese life stories and filmic stories, constructs drug addiction as exceedingly morally transgressive and something to be feared. Drug addiction is feared because it leads to an untimely death or mental illness, a fate worse than death in Chinese culture.

The historical narrative similarly linked opium addiction to death, even though mortality rates apparently were quite low. The prevailing cultural narrative, furthermore, presents drug addiction as exceedingly morally transgressive, because the Chinese drug addicts are deemed to not simply make errant personal lifestyle choices, but to fundamentally betray their families and the Chinese nation. As a consequence, drug addicts invariably face some form of punishment, if not death, in contemporary stories of addiction.

This, too, harks back to the historical narrative. During the Republican era and the early period of Communist rule, Chinese drug addicts, at times, faced execution. In a filmic story analysed in Chinese Stories of Drug Addiction, two heroin addicts are burned to death after packs of heroin are stacked up on top of one of the addicts and set alight. This invokes an historical punishment ritual that still is enacted today, whereby illicit drug pyres are burnt prior to the execution of drug traffickers.

This strong discursive connection between drug addiction and punishment is particularly noteworthy in contemporary mainland Chinese stories, because it countermands official government policy enacted in the 2008 Anti-Drug Law of the People’s Republic of China. This law casts drug addicts as victims who suffer from an illness. Thus, probably through political design, an empathetic biomedical discourse gives way to a steadfastly moralistic and nationalistic discourse in contemporary stories of drug addiction.

Even the drug rehabilitative experience is narrated as punishment. Drug addicts rehabilitate in what essentially are revamped re-education-through-labour facilities. These highly authoritative facilities refashion drug addicts into completely new moral human beings. Thereafter, they can return to Chinese society as good citizens. Their newfound morality is performed in their stories by behaving in accordance with gender norms in Chinese culture, which remain to all intents and purposes Confucian; and by displaying the valued traits of a contemporary (socialist) model citizen.

This prevailing narrative characterising contemporary life stories and filmic stories of drug addiction stands in contrast to that characterising Western counterpart stories. Drug addiction rarely is biomedicalised, unlike Western life stories. Nor is it glorified as in some Western filmic stories. Contemporary mainland Chinese stories of drug addiction, nevertheless, differ somewhat from their Taiwan and Hong Kong counterparts. These differences, as elaborated in Chinese Stories of Drug Addiction, can be traced to the distinct political histories of these two neighbouring geographical communities.

In the future, the rise of methamphetamine and ketamine addiction in mainland China also may impact on how contemporary stories of drug addiction are told there. The stories told to date all deal with opiate and opioid addiction.

Main photo:
Methamphetamine and ketamine addiction in mainland China is rising (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).

Dr Guy Ramsay is a senior lecturer in the School of Languages and Cultures, University of Queensland, and the author of the forthcoming book Chinese Stories of Drug Addiction: Beyond the Opium Dens (Routledge/Asian Studies Association of Australia East Asian Series), which will be published in 2016.

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