China has consistently taken an incredibly hard-line stance against people who use illegal drugs. As the government enforces strict punishments, often in the name of rehabilitation, both human rights abuses and drug addiction rates are worsening.
There are an estimated 12 million regular drug users in China, and illegal production of methamphetamine and ketamine is surging in the country. President Xi Jinping has described illegal drugs as "a menace for society [that] severely harm health, corrupt will, destroy families, consume wealth, poison society, pollute the social environment, and lead to other crimes". As a response to this perception, authorities are detaining thousands of people in squalid conditions for drug use or possession.
Under Xi’s presidency, the government has also begun cracking down on the rising numbers of affluent users, including government officials and even Jackie Chan’s son. Meanwhile, those found to be trafficking drugs face even harsher penalties; thousands of people are executed annually for such offences, although precise numbers are unknown due to government secrecy. Such policies have been described as having "solid support among sections of the Chinese population" by Shen Tingting of Asia Catalyst, a regional NGO.
Despite a handful of therapy-based rehabilitation clinics, some new methadone programmes, and a social acceptance of cannabis use in certain provinces, China remains one of the worst places in the world to be a drug user. Until 2013, the government operated highly controversial forced labour camps for a variety of offenders. Following heavy criticism, inmates who had committed non-drug related crimes were released early, and replaced by people who had been found to use or sell drugs. The camps have been rebranded as drug detention centres, in which people are incarcerated for up to seven years without trial, and continue to undertake forced labour for no pay.
President Xi Jinping has described drugs as a "menace for society"
Although the government provides little information about the centres, anecdotal evidence paints a harrowing picture, including inmates packaging goods for export for unbearably long hours in sweatshop conditions. In 2012, prior to their rebranding, there were around 248 forced labour camps, and Human Rights Watch claims that – at any one time – half a million people are detained in them. Inmates are routinely beaten, forced to recite slogans, sexually abused, and denied medical treatment or substitution therapy.
In 2013, a shopper in a US supermarket discovered a handwritten note in a Chinese-made package of Halloween decorations, pleading her to contact a human rights organisation about the treatment of workers. The writer claimed that lights in the detention centres were permanently switched on, and that detainees were in the presence of guards through night and day.
Outside the detention centres, treatment of people who use drugs is not much better. Public humiliations for those caught with drugs are common, and people are coerced into paying extortionate bribes to avoid arrest. Those caught are placed on a permanent record, so that any time they use their government ID, the police may turn up and force them to do a urine test.
These policies are based on the belief, seemingly shared by the government and the public, that harsh punishments serve as a deterrent for drug use. However, the extremely high recidivism rates, as well as an 860 per cent increase in people who use new synthetic drugs, suggests the contrary. Rather, evidence indicates that harsher punishment actively contributes to the problem; worsening social marginalisation and compounding health problems.
The gradual collapse of the international consensus on prohibition may pressure the Chinese government into introducing a more humane approach to address its citizens’ complex needs. China needs to recognise that it will more effectively reduce harm by addressing the root causes of problematic drug use and providing therapy-based treatment.