Executions hit new high in China's drugs war

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The Independent Online

China has executed 72 people over the past week for drug trafficking offences, launching an unprecedented pace of state-sanctioned killing. The executions were all by bullet to the back of the kneeling victims' head, with the state then charging the families of the condemned for the spent bullet.

China has executed 72 people over the past week for drug trafficking offences, launching an unprecedented pace of state-sanctioned killing. The executions were all by bullet to the back of the kneeling victims' head, with the state then charging the families of the condemned for the spent bullet.

The high number of executions represents a dramatic intensification of the war against illegal drugs, even in a country that executed more than 1,000 people last year. The crackdown came as Peking released its first White Paper on drug control.

Issued on Monday to coincide with the United Nations international day for narcotics control, the policy paper acknowledged achievements to date, but admitted "drugs are still rampant in China, and a long fight remains". There is growing concern that drugs are considered fashionable among China's urban youth - some 80 per cent of Chinese drug addicts are aged under 35.

In Shanghai a well-known DJ called Nicole claims that "everyone" at local rave parties takes ecstasy. "People work hard these days, so they want to play hard. Why not? Dancing to your favourite music and feeling high, that's the happiest thing in life," he said.

To prick the public conscience, authorities have also been reviving the spirit of the Opium War. Police in the southern province of Guangdong on Monday torched a seizure of heroin in the same spot where the Imperial Commissioner, Lin Zexu, burnt British opium in 1839. By his opposition to the drug trade, Lin became a national hero, triggering a series of conflicts through which Britain seized sovereignty of Hong Kong."Over 100 years ago, we had the Opium War," said China's top drug fighter, Yang Fengrui, of the Public Security Ministry. "China was very much victimised and we can never forget that pain. Drugs are a great problem. They are the source of all evil, the enemy of all humanity."

The wholesale elimination of drug abuse in China was once one of the Communist Party's proudest boasts. Strict campaigns against opium addicts in the 1950s ensured an almost drug-free China until trafficking returned through the "open door" of the 1980s.

Last year, Chinese police seized 22 tonnes of illegal drugs, mainly heroin and opium, up 34 per cent on 1998. Registered drug users totalled 680,000 last year, a 14 per cent rise over 1998, though unofficial estimates of the real total run up to 12 million.

Peking blames international drug rings for reviving the problem. In the White Paper, the government called for greater international co-operation to tackle worldwide trafficking worth $400bn per year. More than 140 years after fighting to legalise the opium trade in China, the British government is now working with China to tackle one of the worst side-effects of the drug boom.

On 13 June, Britain's Department for International Development announced a £15m project to curb the spread of Aids in China. More than 72 per cent of China's 17,000-plus HIV carriers were infected through intravenous drug injections, Ministry of Health statistics show. The project's initiatives include distributing free needles to Chinese drug addicts.

To combat the rise in drug trafficking, the Chinese authorities are imposing stiffer penalties. People found smuggling more than 50 grams of heroin and/or 1,000 grams of opium face the death sentence.

The executions of 40 convicted drug traffickers took place over the past week in six cities across China: 17 in Peking, and the remainder in Canton, Chengdu, Chongqing and Guiyang in south and south-west China, and Ürümqi in the north-west.

Chinese police admit the country has become an international corridor for drugs from the notorious Golden Triangle on the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand, stretching up through north-west China to Pakistan, Afghanistan and the former Soviet republics of central Asia. In a campaign launched at the beginning of this year, police have cracked down on drug smuggling from this area. In the first four months of the new year, police in Yunnan province arrested 3,500 suspected drug dealers and seized almost 1,000kg of heroin and opium. As drug use has grown among ethnic minorities, so have cases of HIV.

"It's all market driven," said William Stewart, consultant to a European Union-funded Aids and STD prevention programme. "Since heroin is more widely available, more people have become hooked."

Despite the risk of heavy penalties, potential profits from the illegal trade remain highly attractive, particularly to Chinese from poorer regions such as the south-west. For the men and women charged with controlling the trade, the problem grows ever more dangerous.

Yunnan province has begun issuing police officers with bullet-proof vests after 29 died and another 210 were wounded in the fight against drugs.

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