During a recent meeting with U.S. governors at the White House, President Donald Trump took time to talk about drug policy. “Countries with a powerful death penalty”, he said, “[and] a fair but quick trial, they have very little, if any, drug problem. That includes China.”
Few would describe China's justice system—which boasts a ludicrous conviction rate of 99 percent—as “fair.” But Trump is correct about one thing, anyway: China is happy to execute serious drug offenders. Last July, a court in Henan Province sentenced five men to death for manufacturing and transporting ketamine. In December 2017, 10 men were sentenced to death in Guangdong Province for producing crystal meth, and in February of the same year, Colombian Ismael Enrique Arciniegas, 74, was executed by lethal injection for smuggling cocaine into China. Currently two Canadians await execution for international methamphetamine smuggling.
But have these killings solved China's “drug problem”? No. Once only a consumer, China has become a leading producer of synthetic drugs. Some are for export. Chinese online vendors have supplied opioids to communities across North America, which in the absence of well-funded harm reduction programs have contributed to thousands of overdose deaths.
Others are for domestic markets, like ketamine and methamphetamine, the latter now China's drug of choice. Demand is high and even low-level government officials have not been immune to the allure of the trade. In January 2019, the former Communist Party chief of Boshe Village in Guangdong Province was executed for his role in turning his town into a hotbed of meth production.
If executions have not ended drug production, neither has the repression of drug users ended drug use. Despite the government's unwavering commitment to drug prohibition, between 2006 and 2018 the number of registered users of drugs in China rose from 784,000 to 2.4 million. (The actual total is assumed to be many times higher.)
In spite—or because—of the failure to reverse this trend, state surveillance and repression has increased. Since 2006, files on all registered users of drugs have been added to a national police database, the Dynamic Control System. By integrating this database with hotel check-in systems and computerized transportation ticket vendors, police can cross-reference customer data against files in the system. If a match is discovered, police can intercept the individual, interrogate them and compel them to undergo a urine drug test.
Those who fail a drug test can be sent without trial to drug detention for up to two years. In 2018, 279,000 people were detained in such centers, where the regimen of ideological indoctrination and manual labor resembles that of the the brutal Muslim re-education camps in Xinjiang.
Such cruelties might appeal to Trump. But if Trump truly wished to address the harms of illicit drug use in the U.S., he could look to the Chinese government's embrace of drug harm reduction.
For years, Chinese health authorities and their community partners have promoted methadone maintenance and needle exchanges as a way to stem the spread of bloodborne illnesses and reduce crime rates among users of drugs. These programs, which extend much-needed support to individuals vulnerable to police violence and social stigma, are a small step towards tackling China's real drug problem: how to ensure the health and well-being of users of drugs.
It is telling that Trump finds only the most brutal aspects of Chinese government drug policy worthy of emulation. Yet in pursuit of their own war on drugs, the United States has never been short on home-grown miseries. There's no need to start importing fresh horrors now.
Follow Emile Dirks on Twitter.