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    After Years of Forced Rehab, China’s Drug Users Struggle to Stay Sober

    As less affluent regions crack down on illegal drugs to combat poverty, a lack of opportunities and an economy disrupted by COVID-19 have locals falling back into a cycle of addiction and incarceration.

    This is part one in a series on the aftermath of China’s now-completed war on “extreme poverty.” View the entire series here.

    GUANGXI, South China — Nong Feijun cannot remember the exact year he started using — and misusing — the “white powder.” He only recalls his friends had persuaded him to try, and he agreed to snort heroin for the first time.

    Once was all it took. 

    Soon, the 40-year-old from Longzhou County in the southwestern Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region needed a fix every day. His friends had told him the illegal drug was “cheerful and not addictive at all,” but Nong only remembers feeling “dizzy” all day long. 

    Over the ensuing drug-addled years, Nong couldn’t find daily-wage jobs and ended up squandering his family’s meager savings on the habit, pushing them deeper into penury. In 2013, his wife left him, taking with her their 2-year-old son, and his father also died. “My mother told me to stop touching that thing, but I could not quit at the time,” says Nong. 

    For Nong alone, 1 gram of heroin cost between 200-300 yuan ($30-$45). It also meant spending 10,000 yuan every month on his addiction in a region where the average annual per capita rural income in 2019 was only 11,846 yuan. 

    Then, in 2017, the law caught up. Nong was among thousands of people addicted to drugs rounded up in the area and forced into compulsory rehab by police as part of a major crackdown on substance abuse. Local authorities believed dangerous drug use only exacerbated the region’s already prevalent poverty, and carted those addicted to drugs to mandatory rehabilitation centers. 

    Now, Nong has completed rehab and has renewed purpose: find a decent job and help his aging mother. But it hasn’t been easy. During the two-year rehab, he worked on a production line of transformers without wages, which meant his mother had to rely on poverty allowance — totalling just 4,000 yuan a year, including subsistence allowances and a pension.  

    He left home in 2019 for the southern Guangdong province in search of work. “There are no jobs in my hometown’s factories, and the salary there is low,” he says, adding that he first landed a job at a paper mill in Guangdong’s Zhuhai City. He later switched to a pipeline manufacturing factory in the city of Foshan this year, earning 3,000-5,000 yuan a month based on the workload. 

    But it’s still a struggle, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted his home province of Guangxi’s already fragile economy. He hopes to find a better job and earn at least 6,000 yuan a month so he can send more money home. “I feel sorry for my mother. She is so old. But the rehab at least made me quit,” he says. 

    While the government-mandated rehabilitation drive has had the intended effect of reducing the number of people addicted to drugs, there are many like Nong whose problems go beyond addiction — the biggest being the lack of opportunities in Longzhou County. And without decent job prospects, it’s easy for locals to fall back into a vicious cycle of drug addiction and incarceration.

    Such is the case with Lu, a Longzhou resident who asked to be identified only by his surname. Despite spending a year in mandatory rehab in 2017, Lu was soon back on heroin. He says his friends, who introduced him to the drug years ago, lured him in again. “I was depressed at the time and trying to have some fun,” he says. “I could not stop thinking about the thing all day.” 

    Last year, Lu ended up in jail for six months after he was found in possession of heroin. According to official statistics, Guangxi’s Longzhou County alone has 1,922 drug users on record, which means at least one out of every 140 residents is addicted to drugs. 

    Anti-drug police officer Xie Peijun called Longzhou “a place rife with drugs.” And with its proximity to the Golden Triangle — the dreaded global narcotics hub spread across the trijunction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar — Guangxi is among the main drug smuggling routes into China, second only to Yunnan province bordering Myanmar. 

    The street price of such drugs increases along the chain from production hubs to consumption areas: 350 grams of heroin with 70% purity sells for between 70,000 yuan and 80,000 yuan in Longzhou. According to Xie, this rate at least doubles — though purity falls to 20%-30% — in the provincial capital of Nanning, roughly 200 kilometers away, which also serves as a transfer hub. 

    Apart from the international drug rings, Longzhou also has to deal with small-time dealers selling drugs to rural residents. At the end of the chain, most people addicted to drugs eventually fall into poverty and turn into dealers themselves to fund their drug usage. 

    Longzhou is a county in Guangxi bordering Vietnam and known for a Communist uprising in 1930 and for being a frontier during the Sino-Vietnam conflicts in 1979. While long-running clashes had already disrupted the region’s economic development, a devastating flood in 1986 pushed Longzhou to the top of the first batch of 331 state-designated impoverished counties across China.

    Since Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, poverty alleviation has been a top priority for China and continues to remain a central tenet in President Xi Jinping’s administration. Xi vowed to eradicate poverty by 2020 to achieve “the first centenary goal” of the Chinese Communist Party, founded in 1921. The official poverty line, set in 2011, is at a per capita annual income of 2,300 yuan at 2010 rates. In 2020, this is estimated to be around 4,000 yuan

    In 2017, the National Narcotics Control Commission and State Council Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development declared the war on drugs part of China’s poverty alleviation scheme, calling drug abuse “the twin of poverty.” 

    Longzhou’s economy, however, offers limited opportunities for locals. Located in China’s karst regions, the county relies mainly on sugar cane agriculture and sugar production. COVID-19, meanwhile, has only further hampered cross-border trade in the region.

    It’s why most who have recovered from drug addiction choose migrant work. Often, they move to the neighboring Guangdong province, an economic powerhouse, for jobs and better opportunities. Tang Yongzhong, head of the anti-drug office in Longzhou, says, “One person working as a migrant can lift their whole family out of poverty.”  

    But for those addicted to drugs, a fresh start first requires at least three years of community rehabilitation, a program introduced across China in 2007 as a part of the country’s de-addiction drive. 

    Longzhou County established a community rehabilitation network in 2014, hiring social workers to stay in touch with those addicted to drugs for a three-year period. This includes taking regular tests to ensure no relapses; the scheme also enables recovering drug users to maintain their jobs and provide for their families. If caught taking drugs again during or after community rehab, however, they are sent to a mandatory, isolated rehab center lasting for one or two years. 

    Longzhou resident Lin Licheng, 26, is in his third year of community rehabilitation. Addicted to ketamine, a drug with anesthetic properties that can cause hallucinogenic effects, Lin was caught with the illicit substance when authorities busted a local bar in 2018. 

    He recalls that peer pressure had pushed him into compulsive drug use, with disastrous consequences: His employer, a delivery company, fired him, and he was forced to rely on financial support from his elderly parents. 

    “You use the drug once ... Then you’ll do it again 10,000 times,” he told Sixth Tone after taking a urine test at a local community rehab center. The test results were instantaneous, showing he was clean of three of the most common drugs: heroin, ketamine, and methamphetamine. 

    Those addicted to drugs in the community rehabilitation program can leave Longzhou but often have to return for tests. According to Lin, he tried to find work in Nanning but had to go through security checks every time he left and entered Longzhou, as his participation in the rehab program was on all government records. 

    Lin says the constant checks always left him feeling “embarrassed.” So he now hopes to obtain a driver’s license and find a job out of town to restart his life after the three-year program ends. 

    In 2018, the State Council, China’s Cabinet, announced that Longzhou was no longer in penury — fewer than 2% of the population was under the poverty line. By March this year, the number of those addicted to drugs in poverty across the country dropped from 231,000 to 37,000. According to official data, the poverty alleviation rate among this group has reached 84%. 

    But some households in Longzhou still continue to rely on poverty allowance. 

    Qin Jiangming, 56, returned from Yunnan to Guangxi in 2013. After working as a barber in provincial capital Kunming for 14 years, he began to complain of chronic back pain. He thought surgery would help but says the pain only got worse. 

    That’s when a friend told him heroin “can kill the pain.” In 2018, he too was caught snorting heroin at a friend’s home. By that time, he had spent all his savings feeding his compulsive drug use and was bankrupt. Relying on social insurance, he’d even cheated friends and relatives for money to buy more of the white powder, he says. 

    Qin and his 80-year-old mother now live on government subsidies. And since he couldn’t farm any longer due to his chronic back condition, officials helped him open a barber shop in the village while he completed the community rehab program. 

    But stability is uncertain. When Sixth Tone visited him at his home in Longzhou’s Guanming Village, he was recovering from a road accident in which he suffered a broken leg, leaving him unable to run his shop. He only says: “I hope I get better soon and pick up my scissors again.” 

    (Header image: A farmer rides along a road cutting through sugarcane fields in Jinlong Town, Longzhou County, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Aug. 27, 2020. Li You/Sixth Tone)