In this crowded marketplace in China's far-off Gansu province, where the wind whips yellow sand in your eyes and the guttural Mongol dialect assaults your ears, a man with three fistfuls of beard on his weathered face and a white prayer cap on his head shuffles up politely and asks, "Are you a foreigner?" You admit that you are, and he smiles, eyes crinkling: "I am from the hills, up there." The mountains he is pointing to rise in the distance like a desolate mirage. You look at them and say they are beautiful, even though to you they look only foreboding. He nods and agrees. "Yes, they are beautiful. Come, let us go visit and see its treasures."
Soon, you are jammed in a car with the old man, driving up rutted paths to a small village. It is the home of the Dongxiang people, a 280,000-strong ethnic minority descended from Muslim traders who plied the Silk Road. Veiled girls and skull-capped boys are swarming everywhere. The old man ushers you into a courtyard, where he is met by a 78-year-old friend who is a member of the local government. They clasp hands and touch their hearts, in the Muslim manner. A wrinkled woman serves tea, and you talk about the weather, Osama bin Laden and life in this remote outpost. Then, the conversation shifts to business matters. The elderly councilman says the price is $24 per gramvery cheap, very cheap. The purity is 55%, much higher than you can get in New York City or Beijing. The best way to smuggle it out is wrapped in plastic and deposited in your gas tank. The old men fall silent, and the wrinkled woman asks softly, "More tea?"
A century ago, imperial China was said to be home to 100 million drug users, languid addicts who filled opium dens and closed their eyes as their proud country ebbed into chaos and war. When the victorious communists took over in 1949, they eradicated drug use and cultivation in a matter of years. Beijing's cadres were quickly able to control practically everything: people's jobs, their marriages, even their sex lives. Naturally, opium, with its fantasy-fueling smoke, had no place in this Orwellian state. But today, as China loosens its hold on its economy and society, people are reveling in making their own choices once again. For many, the biggest lure is the greatest taboo: drugs. Independent sources estimate 7 million to 12 million drug addicts nationwide, and although that figure pales per capita compared with the U.S.'s, the number of junkies climbs each year. If the trend continues, in just five years China could have the most addicts per capita of any major economy. More than 80% are under 35 years of age, according to the central government, which keeps meticulousif questionablestatistics but is far less adept at tackling this burgeoning problem.
In the chic clubs of Shanghai, teenagers now pop candy-colored ecstasy pills, while truck drivers use ice to stay awake on the ride home. But these days, the most alluring drug of all is a derivative of that ancient curse, opium: more than 70% of the nation's drug addicts are hooked on heroin, a powder sometimes known in slang as China White.
Nestled beside the twin drug kingdoms of Burma and Afghanistan, China has long provided a prime transit route for drugs on their way to the rest of Asia and beyond. As Thailand's drug interdiction efforts heightened in the 1990s, China's role as a narcotics conduit became even more crucial. At least half of the heroin from the Golden Triangle now travels through China, wending its way through the southern provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong before reaching international seaports. Just last month, a major raid on a Burmese- and Thai-led trafficking ring in Yunnan and Hong Kong's border town, Shenzhen, nabbed 357 kilos of heroin. Today, Chinese officials say a new pattern is emerging; they estimate that 25% of the heroin entering the country stays in the mainland for use by homegrown junkies, up from 10% five years ago. An ever-expanding myriad of routes now carries drugs from Burma, Laos, Afghanistan and Vietnam through China: eastward to Yunnan and Guangxi to feed druggies in the south and upward to Gansu and Ningxia to satisfy users in the north.
Windswept Gansu forms the spine of China's wild west. It is one of China's three most backward provinces. Eastern China may be glitz and glamour, but Gansu is desperate. You smell it in the air: Lanzhou, its capital, is the most polluted city on earth, near-bankrupt factories spewing smoke into the gray sky. In the countryside, Muslim minorities, like the Dongxiang and the Hui, try to survive on a land that gives back less each year. The desert is encroaching on Gansu, and farmers watch the coming sands resignedly, staring into the distance before wiping the dust from their eyes and coaxing a life from the parched ground. In China's cities, of course, life is only getting better. The people of Gansu have seen the transformation on their blurry TVs. A decade ago, the commercials were for refrigerators; now they are for cell phones. But back in Gansu, rural folk still live in the same mud-brick houses as before and many even lack running water. As the income disparity yawns ever wider, the poor of Gansu are desperate to catch up with their coastal cousins. So the Dongxiang and the Hui looked for new hope in an old habit: opium and its descendant, heroin.
At first in the early 1990s, adventurous Dongxiang donned their white hats and went traveling to Yunnan province, on the border with Burma and Vietnam. There, they cut deals with the Miao, the Bai and the Dai peoples, colorfully garbed minorities who slipped by foot across the Sino-Burmese frontier to buy fruit, vegetables and opium. The hill tribes of Yunnan liked the Dongxiang because they, too, were minorities marginalized by the Han Chinese majority. After buying the goods, the Dongxiang headed north to the mountains of Sichuan, where they trekked back to Gansu with the help of the Yi, another ethnic group living on the fringes of Chinese society. This northern drug route crossed some of China's poorest, most remote territory, connecting the country's disenfranchised minorities in an illicit trade. Police were wary of stopping the smuggling, fearing too many arrests would rouse the restive tribes. "Minorities have few other ways to make money," says a dealer in Lanzhou, who has traveled the heroin road dozens of times. "Even if they know that dealing can kill them, they do it because they have to live somehow." Trafficking just 50 grams means the death penalty in Chinapart of a central government initiative to toughen its already harsh stance on drugsbut its alienated ethnic tribes had few other options. So they passed the bags of white powder from tribe to tribe until addiction began to spread, primarily among the Han Chinese. In Lanzhou, for instance, almost all the primary dealers are Dongxiang; almost all the junkies are Han. "Yes, drugs are illegal," says a Dongxiang pusher. "But our people don't usually get hooked. It is only the Han who are weak, and we don't care so much about them because they have never cared about us."
Back in Gansu, the Dongxiang sold their stash to both dealers and users searching for the cheapest high. The powder the Dongxiang had bought for $8 a gram in Yunnan could be sold for $36 a gram in Lanzhou. Everyone was in on the trade, from pregnant women to clerics returning from prayer at the green-domed mosque. (Even last month, a Lanzhou University chemistry professor was arrested for advising an amphetamine and ecstasy trafficking ring.) Dealers came from all over China, smuggling the drug out in gas tanks, car tires and ingested condoms. Gansu's Sanjiaji township soon became one of the largest drug centers in China, after the border areas of Yunnan. By the mid-1990s, even English, Russian and German dealers were coming, because the purity of Sanjiaji heroin was highand the cops were nowhere to be found. "Nobody overseas has heard of Gansu," says Ah Hui, a 26-year-old junkie in Lanzhou, whose teeth are ruined from heroin smoke. "But if people know heroin, they know of Sanjiaji."
By the late 1990s, though, provincial authorities were catching on and the Sanjiaji drug market was forced underground. Roads from Sichuan to Gansu were choked by police roadblocks. The Dongxiang mules still could get through by taking secret mountain paths, but they also needed a more ready supply. So they drew inspiration from tradition: a century ago, nearly 90% of Gansu's agricultural output was tied to the delicate poppy. Major cultivation had been stopped by the Communist Party in the 1950s. But the Dongxiang people still knew how to grow it, and they bought packs of poppy seed to sow themselves a future.
China is loath to admit that poppies are actually grown on home soil. Antidrug officials, like Yang Fengrui of the Public Security Bureau, prefer instead to remind the West of its complicity in China's drug habit: "Our country was very much victimized during the Opium Wars, and we can never forget that pain." Newspapers, too, like to blame "foreign devils" such as Burma for hooking China's young. But international drug analysts estimate that up to 15% of heroin consumed in China is now homegrown. And that percentage is expected to rise as domestic demand continues to surge. Some of China's opium is cultivated in Yunnan and Guangxi, but other regions, especially China's northwest, are now hustling to get in on the action. In 1998, the second biggest heroin seizure in Shanghai's modern history involved 63 kilos smuggled from Gansu's Guanghe county, which includes Sanjiaji. And last fall in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, a South Korean was executed for processing heroin for export to his home country. The source material for the drug? The opium poppies in the fields of Gansu.