Poppy Plantations in China

Wang never imagined he would break the law when all he had in mind was the prosperity of his small village. Wang, the head of the village, tired of the affliction of eternal poverty, started to think poppy cultivation was the solution. As the village head, he showed his confidence in his own initiative by planting over 10,000 poppies on his own farmland. However, to his surprise, less than seven months later, he was arrested and prosecuted for illegal poppy cultivation, and sentenced to seven years in jail and fined five thousand Yuan.

Article 351 of Chinese Criminal Law provides that growing more than five hundred poppies or marijuana plants but less than three thousand amounts to a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment (five years or under) and a fine. If the number of poppy or marijuana plants reaches more than three thousand, the penalty is imprisonment (above five years) plus fine or confiscation. However, if the planter can eradicate poppies or marijuana before harvest, he or she can be exempted from the criminal punishment.

Despite China adopting a hard-line attitude towards poppy planting, poppies seem far from being eradicated in China. There are many illegal poppy farms scattered in mountainous area. Gansu, Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Yunnan and Sichuan are the biggest and most complicated poppy bases in China. In Inner Mongolia, poppies occupied 5000 acres at the peak. Poppy planting has even spread to the capital, Beijing. Although Chinese government asserted that poppy planting and heroin processing is hardly a problem within its boundaries, in fact poppies are still being planted secretly in remote areas that are hard to be detected. In most cases, like Wang, farmers who plant poppies are unaware of the legal consequences of their behaviour and the courts are often hesitating and lenient in their punishment.

New technologies may be helpful in detecting poppies hidden in the woods. In June 2010, Beijing launched an unmanned airplane to search its surrounding areas suspicious of poppy planting. The airplane can take detailed photos of the ground that will reveal the location of poppies. However, this kind of airplane is not widely used in the west of China, because its single journey would cost about one million Yuan, which is too much for less developed provinces in the west to afford. GPS and satellite is also used to locate illegal poppy planting and is reported to be quite effective.

But finding out poppies does not resolve the problem. As long as poppies are lucrative and farmers are impoverished, they will have the incentive to plant poppies. The harsh penalty in law will not stop them. And more likely, farmers are even not aware that poppy planting is criminalised. The fundamental solution lies in the education of farmers and offering them access to other economic opportunities. China has realised this and is giving financial and technical aid to farmers in planting agricultural plants in replacement of poppies. And it has extended its aid over the boundary to the “Golden Triangle”. According to Beijing News online, Chinese enterprises, with the support of Chinese government, have invested 10 billion Yuan introducing alternative crops to replace poppy in northern Myanmar. And China also has a similar programme in Lao.

Despite its best efforts, China has witnessed that the area of opium plantations in Laos increased by 37 percent in 2011, up to 4,100 hectares from last year's 3,000 hectares, according to a new report from the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC). And the area of poppy plantations in Myanmar also increased, up 14 percent from 38,100 hectares in 2010 to 43,600 hectares in 2011. At the same time, the domestic situation in China is never fully estimated as the government is always reluctant to disclose accurate figures. No one can give a definite answer as to how much land poppies are occupying in China and how effective its anti-poppy measures are.