The Truth About China’s Unknown Millions of Drug Users
Wang Hao, a Chinese hip-hop artist who goes by the stage name PG One, recently sparked controversy with a line from his song “Christmas Night,” in which he sings about “pure white powder on the floor.” As a result of his ostensible reference to drug-taking, nearly all of China’s major music platforms have deleted his song from their websites and apps.
Chinese people tend to regard widespread addiction to opium as one of the main causes of the country’s decline in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Communist government has consistently enforced a zero-tolerance policy on drug offenses. Yet in recent years, the country has been engulfed in a series of scandals involving celebrities who use illegal drugs recreationally. These public figures usually consume synthetic drugs like ecstasy, methamphetamine, and ketamine.
According to the National Narcotics Control Commission — the country’s foremost anti-drug organization — there were an estimated 2.5 million drug users in China at the end of 2016. The same body classified around 1.5 million of them, or 60 percent, as users of so-called new drugs — that is, the synthetic drugs mentioned above instead of “traditional” drugs like, say, heroin and cocaine. In the same year, 445,000 people started using drugs in China, of which 81 percent were classified as substance abusers. However, these figures only include drug users whose details are known to the country’s public security organs; the actual number is likely much higher.
As part of an investigation into sexuality in China, I conducted a series of nationwide surveys that targeted 18- to 61-year-olds and included questions about their history of drug use. My results showed that the proportion of men who had tried new drugs increased from 3.4 percent in 2010 to 5 percent in 2015, while women who used new drugs increased from 0.8 percent to 2.1 percent. The oldest person who admitted to using drugs was 50 years old. Therefore, if we discount all participants older than that, then 3.9 percent of all 18- to 50-year-olds have tried new drugs.
As of the end of 2014, China had about 680 million people aged between 20 and 49 years old. We can therefore conservatively estimate that approximately 26 million people from that age group have used drugs at some point in their lives.
Our surveys also confirmed other facts that many Chinese know to be true. For instance, men, young people, and those with less formal education are more likely to use drugs. However, the surveys also showed several unexpected trends that deserve a closer look.
First, it is not true that the younger you are, the more likely you are to take drugs. On the contrary, drug use remains rather low among 18- to 24-year-olds. Instead, 25- to 29-year-olds are 3.3 times more likely than average to have used drugs, while 30- to 34-year-olds are 4.3 times more likely. After the age of 35, the likelihood of drug use falls significantly.
My theory is that the above trends occur because, from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, Chinese people come under great social pressure. As a result, many of them turn to drugs in order to relieve stress. In comparison, young people aged 18 to 24 are often studying at university, just graduated, or working entry-level jobs. As recreational drugs play a decreased social role among Chinese college students, it is less likely that people in this age range would use them. But by the age of 25, people tend to have wide and diverse social networks, meaning they are more likely to have friends who have access to drugs.
Second, it is not entirely true that Chinese people are more likely to use drugs if their educational level is lower. Those who completed primary school or lower are, indeed, nearly 11 times more likely than average to take new drugs, and those who dropped out of high school are 2.8 times more likely. But if you dropped out during middle school or hold a vocational diploma, the probability that you have used drugs is actually lower than average. Therefore, while a lack of formal education can be a factor in drug use, we must remain wary of the stereotype that those who take drugs suffer from a dearth of proper schooling.
The two above trends carry political ramifications. The government clamps down strongly on drug users, but my data raises important questions. For example, are anti-drug campaigns failing those who dropped out of school at the primary level? Given that learning to read and write Chinese characters is an endeavor that continues long after primary school, are those who drop out at a young age unable to understand state-sponsored anti-narcotics literature? If so, then the government’s anti-narcotics drives should create NGOs specifically tasked with targeting the underlying issues of this group.
Third, there is a link between solitude and taking new drugs, but it is difficult to distinguish the cause and the effect. Those who have few social relationships, rarely go out, or regularly drink heavily are 2.3 to 5.7 times more likely to use drugs than people who have wide social networks and drink in moderation. But it is unclear whether their drug-taking drives them into these habits, or whether they take drugs after first living under these conditions for an extended period of time.
Over the last two years, a social group known as the “empty-nest youth” has received a lot of media attention in China. The term refers to young urbanites who generally live alone and lack significant interpersonal relationships. But if this emerging lifestyle pushes certain people into illegal drug-taking, how should both society and the state reach out and help young, isolated drug users?
There is, however, a definite correlation between the use of new drugs and sexual activity. Certain effects of new drugs — such as increased empathy, euphoria, and heightened sensation — are considered desirable in certain sexual situations. My surveys show that people who use drugs are three times more likely to have multiple sexual partners and five times more likely to solicit the services of sex workers. But we can also turn this situation around and say that certain people rely on drug use as a way to maintain sexually liberal lifestyles. Regardless of the cause and effect, however, the outcome remains the same: Drug users are over 15 times more likely than average to contract a sexually transmitted disease.
The number of drug users in China increased substantially from 2010 to 2015. There is no evidence to suggest that the figure will stop growing or decrease. Drug use is, of course, a global issue, but we nonetheless know very little about China’s drug users. We must therefore continue to undertake in-depth surveys into their habits and behavior, and adjust our anti-narcotics policies to help them in the best way we can.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.
(Header image: A confiscated new drug lies on a table at a police station in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Dec.11, 2017. Zhang Zi/VCG)