The History Behind Chinese “Harsh” Anti-Drug Campaign

Drug abuse is always a huge social problem in China. Many historical, economic and geological reasons make China an important region for the anti-drug campaign and illegal drug trading. Thus, the Chinese anti-drug law and county anti-drug committees form a strong and effective anti-drug system to prevent “cultivating and manufacturing of, trafficking in, and ingesting or injecting narcotic drugs” (Anti-Durg Law of the People’s Republic of China Chapter 1 Article 4).

However, the level of harshness of the Chinese anti-drug campaign is often criticised in the world. As we all know, there is a general judiciary trend where more and more countries have abandoned the death penalty. But China still insists on the death penalty ( depending on the situation) if a person is found guilty under the anti-drug law.

In this blog, I want to make an overview of China’s anti-drug campaign history. I also want to introduce you to those major historical events. They push anti-drug law reform as well as a national boycott of drug use. Through these events, the Chinese government has built a high level of social awareness towards drug abuse.

Chinese anti-drug scope overview

The compulsory detoxification for the anti-drug campaign in China
The compulsory detoxification for the anti-drug campaign in China. Credit to

In China, all drugs that can make people addicted are strictly under control. There are two major categories – narcotic drugs and psychotropic drugs. Some of them are legal for medical use, such as morphine and pethidine. Most of the drugs on the list are banned for any purpose of use. No trade, no manufacturing, no use. Notably, cannabis and cannabis products are all illegal in China. I know there are some countries (eg. Canada) legalised cannabis for medical purposes and/or entertainment purposes. But in China, your consumption of cannabis products can lead you to the death penalty.

Speaking of the death penalty, a person liable for drug trading or manufacturing does not always get it. There are three types of sentences for those who breach the anti-drug law. The most severe one is, of course, the death penalty. The defendant can also get 15 years imprisonment or life imprisonment, depending on one’s circumstances. However, drug smuggling and trading at a certain amount will give sufficient evidence for the death penalty, though not necessarily. For example, 50 grams of cocaine, 100 grams of morphine, 200kg of caffeine or 150kg of cannabis products can lead smugglers to the end of their lives.

The anti-drug system is hard police-centric. The police are the only authority to decide whether to send drug users to compulsory detoxification or community drug treatment for at most 3 years. The police also keep tracking drug users, and they do random drug tests on drug users to make sure they don’t go back to the old days.

Criticism towards Chinese anti-drug campaign

There has been constant criticism against the Chinese anti-drug campaign, because it is “way too inhumane”. It is very common to see judges giving death penalties when defendants are involved in drug trading and smuggling. Also, drug users must go to compulsory detoxification, which is similar to imprisonment. Because the police have all the power to decide where these drug users should go. The compulsory detoxification is not a part of the public health section.

It is also common to see that the Chinese government refuses to release foreign defendants involved in drugs. In 2013, an Australian citizen, Cam Gilespie, carried more than 7.5 kg of methamphetamine, also known as ice, in his luggage. When he arrived at the Baiyun airport, Guangzhou, the Chinese police arrested him. He was trying to board an international flight at that time. Although the Australian government expressed concern and tried to negotiate, this Australian smuggler received his death penalty on 13 June 2020.

Similarly, a Canadian citizen, Robert Schellenberg, was sentenced to 15-year imprisonment in 2018 for drugs-related offences. But in 2019, after reviewing his case, the court found his sentence was too lenient. On 14 January 2019, Schellenberg received his death penalty as well, regardless of the pleading from Canada’s Minster of Foreign Affair.

Those criticisms always argue that the execution by China is too cruel, and the Chinese judiciary should abolish the death penalty. Also, for foreigners who commit a crime in China, there is no mercy. The Chinese judiciary imposes the death penalty on whoever violates the law.

Geological factors

The locations of Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent. The two areas are of most concern of world's anti-drug campaign.
The locations of Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent. Credit to Wikipedia

Golden Triangle

The Golden Triangle is where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. This area is mountainous; thus, it is a good place for opium cultivation and drug smuggling. The Golden Triangle is one of the largest opium-producing areas since the 1950s. It also produced heroin and was once the largest site where most of the world’s heroin was supplied until the early 21st century.

The Golden Triangle arose when the CCP took over China. The Chinese government executed dealers with no mercy and sent millions of drug users to compulsory treatment. They reformed the anti-drug law and banned all kinds of opium-producing activities. Eventually, illegal opium production had to move out of South China. Somewhere around the Chinese border an unstable political status suited them best.

Nowadays, the Golden Triangle produces synthetic drugs, particularly methamphetamine. Drug trafficking and smuggling have become the main industry for local people to earn a living. Drugs from the Golden Triangle are exported to Australia, New Zealand, and East and Southeast Asia.

Golden Crescent

Golden Crescent locates at the crossroads of Central, South and Western Asia. It has a longer history of being illicit drug production and trading area. It is the largest opium-producing area with a mountainous landscape as well. Golden Crescent also dominates the cannabis industry due to the high resin yields.

 Afghanistan plays an important role in the Golden Crescent. It now produces over 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical-grade opium. It is also the largest producer of heroin, second by the Golden Triangle. The market size is 64% larger than the Golden Triangle’s. Despite worldwide efforts to capture and seize as much opium product as possible, only 1% of total production (heroin) in Afghanistan is destroyed.

Anti-Drug Historical Events

The First Opium War

The First Opium War happened in 1839-1842 between Britain and the Qing dynasty of China. Back then, the British government was not happy about the large trade deficit with China. They were already planning to invade Qing China and took it as another colony. They sold opium to China, approximately 1400 ton per year, as opium was a medical ingredient in China. The British government requested more trade ports, but the Qing Chinese government rejected them. They then proceeded on requesting to legalise narcotic drugs inside the Chinese administration, but the government rejected this proposal repeatedly. In 1838, the Qing Chinese government began to execute drug traffickers actively. These actions brought tension between the two countries.


The Daoguang Emperor appointed Lin Zexu to investigate why the British government wished to push opium sale in China. The Qing government soon found out that the British government banned opium sale in Britain, but the British government wished to legalise opium sale in China. Queen Victoria claimed it was moral to do so; however, the intention was questionable that the British government did not legalise opium on their own lands.

In early July 1839, two British soldiers were drunk at a trade port. They became agitated and beat an innocent villager to death. The Qing government would like to give a trial under the Chinese legal code, but Superintendent Eillot refused to hand the two soldiers over. Under continuous political and economic tension, the rumour soon spread to Britain. But the story became another way round: Chinese soldiers beat an innocent British man to death. Soon, when the British fleet tried to buy provisions from local villagers, local officers stopped them from trading. The local officer wrote a letter to the Qing government. His letter claimed they won the battle and severely underestimated the strength of the Royal Navy.

The War

With ignorance and overconfidence, the Qing government lost every battle when the British fleet attacked trade ports. The Chinese Navy had to withdraw to inner lands. The Royal Navy then relocated the expeditionary force to Hong Kong.

The First Opium War ended up with the first unfair and humiliating peace treaty – The treaty of Nanking. The treaty included three main parts:

  • Open foreign trade. Open five more trade ports. Abolish the Canton System. Abolish tariff.
  • Pay 6 million sliver equals to those opium destroyed by Lin Zexu.
  • Hong Kong would be a crown colony of Britain.

The First Opium War started to turn Qing China into a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society. The year 1839 becomes the beginning of Chinese modern history. The evil impact of the opium habit on the Chinese people, and the arrogant manner in which the British imposed their superior power to guarantee the profitable trade, have been the staples of Chinese historiography ever since.

Anti-drug campaign: Destruction of opium at Humen

The painting demonstrates the moment of desctrution of opium at Humen. Credit to

Early in 1729, the Qing government had already issued a ban on opium sales. However, the opium trade was very profitable. They could not eliminate opium entirely, as some government officer corruption provided shelter to illegal opium market.

In 1838, Lin Zexu was investigating opium sales in Britain. The Qing government published legislation to ban opium sales. Lin Zexu forced trade unions to hand over all the merchants’ names involved in opium trading. He arrested over 1600 drug users and drug smugglers. He also temporarily closed down the Canton System, which functioned as a custom.

Lin Zexu ordered labourers to dig some big pools by the sea. They filled those pools with seawater and dumped all opium inside. Instead of burning opium, Lin Zexu used limestone and seawater to destroy opium. It lasted over 40 days till the last piece of opium disappeared.

The Second Opium War

The Summer Palace Ruins nowadays.
The Summer Palace Ruins nowadays. Credit to

The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was an extended version of the First Opium War. The French Empire and the British Empire led the war and forced Qing China to open more trade ports. Western empires saw how the British government achieved its “success”, so they wanted to join the war and share. The purpose was to force China to fully open to foreign merchants and to legalise the opium trade. The United States and Russia sent envoys to Hong Kong to offer military help to the British and French, though in the end, Russia sent no military aid.

The war ended up with another loss of Qing China. The British and French army seized Beijing, burnt down the Summer Palaces, robbed hundreds and thousands of relics from Qing China. The Qing government had to sign other treaties, which were the Treaties of Tianjing and the Treaty of Aigun. Those treaties required:

  • Britain, France, Russia, and the U.S. would have the right to establish diplomatic legations (small embassies) in Peking (a closed city at the time).
  • Ten more Chinese ports will be opened for foreign trade, including Niuzhuang, Tamsui, Hankou, and Nanjing.
  • The right of all foreign vessels, including commercial ships, to navigate freely on the Yangtze River
  • The right of foreigners to travel in the internal regions of China, which had been formerly banned
  • China was to pay an indemnity of four million taels of silver to Britain and two million to France.

And of course, the legalisation of the opium trade again.


The two wars traumatised Chinese people permanently till now. The influence was disruptive. Nowadays, the Chinese government (PRC) has not fully retrieved all the national treasures robbed by the British Empire. The Opium Wars provided a channel for all kinds of drugs to enter the Chinese market as well. Although the war stopped when the Qing government signed those treaties, the spread of drugs was rapid.

Mekong River massacre 2011

On 5 October 2011, two Chinese cargo ships sailed through a stretch of the Mekong River in the Golden Triangle region on the borders of Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand. It was supposed to be a quiet morning. However, the region has long been plagued by lawlessness and is notorious for drug smuggling.

The two ships were attacked by armed forces. All 13 crew members on the ship were killed and dumped into the river. It was the deadliest attack on Chinese nationals abroad in modern times. The Chinese government was shocked and in rage. They suspended shipping on the Mekong River temporarily and urged Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to jointly investigate this case. It turned out that 9 Thai involved in drug smuggling attacked the two ships.

Anti-drug campaign: Arrest Sai Naw Kham

The criminals received death sentences on the Court.
The criminals received death sentences in Court. Credit to

With further investigation, the Chinese government noticed a drug gang led by Naw Kham, a former follower of Khun Sha (the former drug lord in the Golden Triangle). After Khun Sha surrendered to the Myanmar military force, Naw Kham took over his dirty business and became the next notorious drug lord in Golden Triangle. The Laos government arrested him and extradited him to China on 10 May 2012.

Naw Kham and the other three members of the drug gang were convicted of murdering the 13 Chinese sailors. In December 2012, the Yunnan Higher Court rejected all Naw Kham’s appeals, upholding the death penalty previously made. On 1 March 2013, the four men were executed in China.

Anti-drug movie based on Mekong River massacre

Operation Mekong is a movie based on the Mekong River massacre. It was released in 2016. The main characters are Eddie Peng and Zhang Hanyu. The movie is now available on American Nextflix.

China’s anti-drug efforts

The Chinese Anti-drug police.
The Chinese Anti-drug police. Credit to

The history of Chinese people fighting against narcotic drugs is long. There are historical reasons that why the anti-drug campaign in China is so strict. During the Opium Wars, there was once a humiliating nickname for weak Asian countries – “Sick man of Asia“. The name also referred to those drug users. People who smoked opium back then were all skinny and unhealthy. The century of humiliation in Chinese history began in 1839, when narcotic drugs played an important role. It is indispensable to ensure this will never happen again.

As I previously mentioned, both Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent are geologically close to China. Also, the landscape in both areas is difficult for normal searches by the police. China is responsible for maintaining order around its border. With fast economic development, more and more illegal drug trading targets China as a potential market. Since China is still a developing country, its legislation and judiciary system are not yet completed.

At this stage, the police-centric anti-drug system is the best solution. An anti-drug policeman’s average lifespan is only 41 years. Their identity information is top secret. It is very dangerous to be an anti-drug policeman in China. Over 300 policemen die every year for the anti-drug campaign. There is a touching story: A son died as an anti-drug policeman at 36 years old in 2020. His father was an anti-drug policeman who died of a drug smuggler’s grenade 26 years ago, in 1994. The son carried on his father’s badge with the same identity number. They served the same purpose that is to eliminate narcotic drugs in China.

In China, celebrity drug users will be banned forever, as they are disgraceful and unrespectful to anti-drug police officers. For example, Ko Chen-tung, a Taiwanese actor, and Jaycee Chan, Jackie Chan’s son. They were involved in drug abuse in 2014, and had never got a second chance to go back to the entertainment industry.


The Chinese anti-drug history is made from wars and blood. These experiences are permanent stamps on Chinese people’s memory. For Chinese people, the best way to help the anti-drug campaign is “To cherish your life, stay away from drugs” – the slogan of the Chinese anti-drug campaign. I agree with the slogan. As ordinary people, all we have to do, and as little as we can do, is to stay away from narcotic drugs. The higher the awareness is, the lower the drug trade will be.

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