This month, anti-narcotics officials symbolically burned 150kg of heroin and amphetamines in Humen county, south China, the site where in 1839 Commissioner Lin Zexu infuriated the British opium traders by destroying 20,000 chests of opium. But the propaganda stunt was an embarrassing reminder that drugs, a problem that was virtually eliminated after the Communist victory in 1949, have returned with a vengeance in the era of reform.
The scale of the problem is difficult to assess. At the end of 1995, China admitted to 520,000 registered drug addicts, but even the official media admits the real number is much higher. Earlier this year, Chinese officials privately told the visiting Russian Procurator-General, Rigory Skuratov, that the country had 12 million drug addicts, although at 1 per cent of the total population, this may have been an exaggeration.
There is no exaggerating, however, the ferocity of China's response. In the past six years, 65,000 dealers and traffickers have been arrested for drug-related crimes and hundreds of thousands of addicts despatched to rehabilitation units. During that period China seized more than 21.5 tonnes of heroin, 12.6 tonnes of opium and 8.5 tonnes of marijuana.
Last Thursday, a public rally was held at the Shijingshan Stadium in Peking, where drugs were burned and 14 drug-dealers and traffickers were sentenced to death. They were then driven off in a truck for immediate execution. Similar mass executions took place across the country - 15 in Fujian province, 24 in Sichuan, 15 in Guangzhou, and five in Zhuhai. In Kunming, capital of Yunnan province, which borders South-East Asia's prime drug-producer, Burma, 27 people were executed and 1,000kg of heroin were burned.
Until the past few years, China's drugs problem was mostly confined to Yunnan, but drug use has now spread across the whole country. Between 1992 and 1996, Peking saw a 24-fold increase in drug-related criminal cases, said the Peking Youth daily this month. The addicts were overwhelmingly males under 35 years old, unemployed, with less than senior high school education levels.
A national drug hotline has been set up for people to report drug dealers and for addicts to get help. One man said: "All my neighbours smuggle drugs because farming cannot bring them enough money. In the past, the surrounding villages were very poor, but now almost all families get suddenly rich."Reuse content