A photo from 1874 shows a man addicted to opiates smoking his pipe in a restaurant.

Chinese regimes from the Qing (1644–1912) to the People’s Republic have struggled to control problems with drugs, most notably opium, a particularly complex issue intertwined with Chinese politics and perceptions of the nation’s social and economic health and advancement. Despite campaigns against opium, eliminating it has proved as elusive for China as it has for most of the rest of the world.

For more than a century, between the end of the First Opium War in 1842 and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China’s name was virtually synonymous with drug problems, particularly those related to the consumption, cultivation, and sale of opium. Opium not only was considered a problem in terms of widespread addiction and impoverishment but also became a powerful symbol of all that was ailing the “sick man of Asia”: By the mid-nineteenth century the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was wracked by internal rebellions, beset by the demands of aggressive imperialist powers, and weakened by severe financial strains.

The passivity of the seemingly stereotypical Chinese opium smoker seemed an apt metaphor for the backwardness of the traditional imperial system and its alleged inability to shake itself out of its stupor. However, the reality was quite different. Most Chinese opium smokers were not emaciated, lethargic addicts, and the Chinese state made numerous attempts to eliminate what it saw as the problem of opium, launching several nationwide suppression campaigns that achieved varying degrees of success.

China’s relationship with opium is lengthy and complex. Chinese had long valued the drug for its myriad medical and sexual benefits and even for the beauty of the poppy flower. By the mid-Qing dynasty, however, China’s rulers began to worry about the impact of the drug on the elite class. China’s first anti-opium edict in 1729 struck at opium dealers and the proprietors of opium dens. Opium imports were forbidden in 1796, but the number of chests steadily increased to meet the growing Chinese demand. Two hundred chests of foreign opium (at around 61 kilograms per chest) were imported in 1729, but by 1838, on the eve of the First Opium War (1839–1842), that number had increased a hundredfold.

Early Efforts

Since the mid-nineteenth century the Chinese government has conducted four noteworthy anti-opium campaigns, initiated by each of China’s three major regimes. The first campaign, led by Lin Zexu (1785–1850), China’s most famous anti-opium activist, was largely confined to the port city of Guangzhou (Canton) immediately before the outbreak of the First Opium War. The clandestine drug trade had proven so lucrative for foreign merchants that it generated a heated debate at the highest levels of the Qing court in 1836. Several high officials pushed to legalize the drug so that the state could profit in the short term while gaining a degree of control that would eventually allow it to eliminate the trade. Others opposed the drug trade not only because it was illegal but also because opium’s addictive nature harmed individual health and social stability.

Ultimately, the state committed itself to prohibition and named Lin Zexu imperial commissioner with the authority to eliminate China’s opium problem. The 1839 anti-opium campaign focused on Guangzhou, where the geographical isolation of China’s foreign trade under the Canton system meant an especially acute opium problem that represented a galling affront to Qing law and sovereignty. Lin paired an educational initiative with the registration and treatment of smokers, the recruitment of a network of informants to discourage smugglers, and harsh restrictions that made smoking a capital offense in certain circumstances. Even more dramatically, he demanded that foreign merchants hand over more than twenty thousand chests of opium and blockaded the merchants in their warehouses until they complied. Lin then destroyed the drug, infuriating the British and setting the stage for the First Opium War.

China’s loss in the First Opium War brought outrage and humiliation to the Chinese, but the opium trade itself remained untouched and illegal until the Second Opium War (1856–1860), when a tariff was set on each chest of imported opium. The amount of opium imported into China soared until the late 1870s and early 1880s, when competition from Chinese poppy farmers began to make serious inroads on the market for the Indian-grown drug.

Although many Chinese were involved in the cultivation, preparation, distribution, sale, and consumption of opium, popular sentiment was mixed. The Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864) prohibited opium smoking among its followers, and a number of popular heterodox sects (contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard of belief) and fraternal organizations were dedicated to fighting opium and other intoxicants and vices. Ironically, the Qing government’s battle against the Taipings proved so expensive that the government initiated the lijin (internal transit tax) on all goods traveling through the country to raise revenue, and opium was among the most frequently taxed commodities. By 1890 the Qing state bowed to the inevitable and quietly legalized the cultivation of poppies in China, and although the Qing attempted to use taxation to control the trade, by the early twentieth century opium had become a crucial cash crop, a cornerstone of foreign trade, and a mainstay of China’s medical scene and social life.

As the ailing Qing dynasty clung to power, China’s Manchu rulers launched what was termed the New Policies (xin zheng), a set of reforms designed to modernize the Chinese economy, military, and political system and eliminate what they felt were backward or harmful social customs, such as footbinding and opium smoking. The state used nationalism as the motivation for reform, but opium was so intimately associated with Chinese society that when the Guangxu emperor (reigned 1875–1908) issued an edict launching a ten-year, nationwide anti-opium campaign in September 1906, it met with considerable skepticism inside and outside China.

In fact, the campaign garnered considerable success; it was well conceived and modern in its implementation, although it tended to be more successful in urban areas than in the rural villages and hinterland, where most of China’s poppies were harvested. Bolstered by a treaty signed in 1908 with the British government, in which the latter pledged to reduce the amount of opium exported from India into China by one-tenth over a ten-year period, the effort targeted both the supply of and demand for opium. Opium dens were shut down, opium smokers were registered and given photographic licenses to purchase diminishing rations of the drug from licensed shops, treatment centers were opened, and officials attempted to prohibit the cultivation of poppies. The task was daunting, and because the central state could offer little or no funding for suppression in the provinces, much of the campaign was funded by fines on violators of the new restrictions. Chinese officials and reformers were often encouraged and sometimes assisted by foreign missionaries who viewed opium smoking as immoral and socially devastating, not to mention an obstacle to conversion. Ironically, the missionaries who were so critical of the Chinese tended to come from countries that not only profited from the opium trade with China but also widely consumed opium and accepted it as a medical panacea.

Letter to Queen Victoria, 1839

Is there a single article from China that has done any harm to foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them. If China cuts off these benefits with no sympathy for those who are to suffer, then what can the barbarians rely upon to keep themselves alive? Moreover the woolens, camlets, and longells [i.e., textiles] of foreign countries cannot be woven unless they obtain Chinese silk… As for other foodstuffs, beginning with candy, ginger, cinnamon, and so forth, and articles for use, beginning with silk, satin, chinaware, and so on, all the things that must be had by foreign countries are innumerable. On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used as toys. We can take them or get along without them…

The goods from China carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use but also can be divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?

Source: Letter to the English Ruler [1839].. (1999). In Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano (Comps.), Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 through the Twentieth Century (2nd ed.). New York: Columbia University Press, 1I, 202.

The numerous groups with vested interests in continuing the opium trade did not give up easily. However, the campaign had achieved enough success by 1911 that when the agreement with the British was renegotiated in May of that year, China was given the opportunity to end British imports in less than ten years if it could prove that Chinese poppy cultivation had ceased. Smoking continued secretly in many locales, but poppy farmers were the most likely to resist violently and in large numbers. The new republican state continued the anti-opium campaign, but with a new focus on eliminating cultivation, often by force. And as the government cracked down on opium, other opiates, such as morphine and heroin, became increasingly popular.

Trafficking Rebounds

As the country fragmented into warlord regimes after the death of republican President Yuan Shikai in 1916, the absence of a strong central government and the growing warlord demand for resources meant a resurgence of trafficking in opium and other drugs. International outcry and the work of Chinese drug reformers, such as the International Anti-Opium Association and the National Anti-Opium Association, had little effect on the situation until Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) established his Nationalist republic at Nanjing in 1927. In 1935, after other informal efforts, Chiang announced the launching of the Six-Year Plan to Eliminate Opium and Drugs, a plan with the express intent of bringing the drug trade under government control to eventually eliminate it. Historians continue to debate Chiang’s motivations, but the state did manage to gain considerable control over revenue that otherwise would have fallen into the hands of rival warlords, although one of Chiang’s more questionable actions involved Du Yuesheng (1887–1951), notorious leader of the infamous Shanghai Green Gang and longtime opium trafficker, in the campaign. As China became engulfed in war, Chiang’s government fled to Chongqing, and the drug trade continued to generate much-needed revenue for the Japanese and the Chinese.

Not long after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) launched another nationwide antinarcotics campaign from 1950 to 1952. The new Chinese state sought to eliminate all vestiges of what it saw as the old, backward, and debauched regimes that had come before. A new China required strong, healthy citizens, citizens who were not caught up in frivolous, destructive old vices such as prostitution, gambling, and opium smoking. The comprehensive goals of the CCP initiative in many ways mirrored those of the effort launched in the late Qing, and the Chinese government initiated a mass campaign intended to eliminate opium consumption, cultivation, and distribution, while providing treatment for habitual users. The first stage relied on public trials and mass arrests, but the tumultuous first years of the new state precluded a concentrated, consistent focus on the antidrug campaign. Beginning in late 1952 the second phase was better organized and relied on mass mobilization and intensive propaganda as well as harsher punishments for violators. Hundreds were executed as the battle against opium was incorporated into broader campaigns against corruption. The campaigns were part of a comprehensive effort on the part of the new state to penetrate and control local society, and they succeeded in eliminating much of China’s illicit drug use.

Since that early campaign the Chinese government has initiated several antidrug campaigns, most of which have resulted in widespread imprisonment and some high-profile executions. Most have focused on traditionally remote and hard-to-govern minority populations, especially in Yunnan Province, part of the infamous Golden Triangle region that borders Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Post-Mao regimes have relied less on the mass participation that was the hallmark of Maoist campaigns and have had to deal with several developments that promote increased drug use—more expendable cash, a growing income disparity, and the emergence of an enormous “floating” population of migrants whose members flock to the cities and often exist beyond government control.

No Leniency

Twenty-first-century China faces drug problems similar to those confronted by other modern and modernizing societies, and the Chinese government takes an aggressive stance. Drug addicts are required to register with the government, and although close to 1 million had done so at the outset of the twenty-first century, far more have undoubtedly hesitated for fear of punishment. In the past addicts were indeed considered criminals and punished accordingly, but the current official approach to addiction is that it requires treatment. However, many rehabilitation centers use a “detoxification through labor” regimen, and there is no leniency for drug trafficking. Tens of thousands of people involved in the production or trafficking of drugs have been arrested, and hundreds have been executed, but the problem continues to grow. So-called designer drugs such as Ecstasy have become popular, and Chinese authorities are concerned about the spread of methamphetamine production and consumption. Ironically, however, most of China’s registered addicts are hooked on heroin, derived from the opium poppy. Heroin trafficking remains especially difficult to control in Yunnan Province, and as poppy production soars in Afghanistan, that border has also become a problem. To the ultimate chagrin of Chinese authorities, as the economy flourishes and many rural Chinese want a piece of urban prosperity, poppy farming has reemerged in remote areas of China.

Further Reading

Baumler, A. (Ed.). (2001). Modern China and opium: A reader. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brook, T., & Wakabayashi, B. T. (Eds.). (2000). Opium regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839–1952. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Madancy, J. A. (2003). The troublesome legacy of Commissioner Lin: The opium trade and opium suppression in Fujian Province, 1820s to 1920s. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center.

Zhou Yongming. (1999). Ant
i-drug crusades in twentieth-century China: Nationalism, history, and state building
. Lanham, MD and Oxford, U.K: Rowman & Littlefield.

Source: Madancy, Joyce A. (2009). Antidrug Campaigns. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 64–67. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Antidrug Campaigns (Dàgu?mó s?odú yùndòng ???????)|Dàgu?mó s?odú yùndòng ??????? (Antidrug Campaigns)

Download the PDF of this article