Society

How Methamphetamines Replaced Heroin As China's New Drug Of Choice

Smuggled in from Burma and North Korea, meth is flooding Chinese mean streets.

The dark corners of China
The dark corners of China
Harold Thibault

RUILI – At 38 Ruijing Street in the small town of Ruili, in the southwest Yunnan province, there is a constant flow of drug addicts coming and going.

Under the watchful eye of a dozen prostitutes waiting for their clients, an addict enters this rundown house every three minutes. Shidian, 22, comes out with doses of bingdu, a methamphetamine known in the West as "crystal meth" or "ice" for its crystalline texture.

"I started using two or three years ago. In Ruili, its cheaper," says the young man.

The Yunnan province in southwestern China, near the border with Burma (Myanmar), was once known for its booming heroin trade. Today, methamphetamines have taken over the market, as synthetic drugs grow more popular in the country.

In 2011, 65% of Chinese addicts were heroin users, down 13% since 2008. According to the National Drug Control Commission, methamphetamine users now make up 23% of addicts, up from 9% in 2008.

These synthetic drugs are mostly used by youths – nearly 70% of users are under 35 – who are trying hard drugs for the first time. Many start with methamphetamines then turn to ecstasy and ketamine – drugs once reserved to the rich customers of Hong Kong clubs and that are now making strides to mainland China.

In Ruili, bingdu crystals (bingdu literally means “ice drug”) cost about five yuan (80 cents) a dose. The average wage in this region is about 830 yuan ($133). Shidian doesn’t have a job. He borrows money from his girlfriend to pay for his daily dose – up to 100 yuan ($16). The further away from the Burmese border, the higher the price of methamphetamine. He would pay three times that amount in Baoshan, his hometown 250 kilometers east of Ruili, and much more in Shanghai or Beijing.

"In bars, young people are introduced to bingdu by their friends. It’s for recreational use at first," says Zhang Yongan, director of the center for anti-drug policy studies at Shanghai University. "That explains why its popularity rose so fast in rich cities. Meanwhile, heroin remains the drug of choice of marginalized rural Chinese or migrant workers living on the outskirts of urban areas."

Wang Yaqing has seen this evolution in Xuanwei, a southwestern city of 1.2 million people. She heads an organization that helps drug addicts and finds the lack of prevention policies regrettable. "I’ve never seen a bingdu addict get clean, because most refuse to admit its effects are lethal."

In her town, information about the dramatic consequences of methamphetamine use is limited to a once-a-year awareness "open day" organized by the police, as well as posters with standardized messages like "Fighting the war of the people against drugs." The volunteer activist sees the new Internet cafes and gaming arcades as another sign of the growing influence of bingdu. "When an addict smokes he feels a strong euphoria. The next day, he’s exhausted but still unable to sleep so he spends time in front of a computer screen or an arcade game."

Dealers know they’re unlikely to get caught because the police are mostly trained to fight heroin use. "Before, heroin was as easy to buy as Chinese cabbage but now to find some, you need to have good contacts – while bingdu is available everywhere," says Wang. Five police cars drove by Ruijing Street that evening, and more over the next three days but none stopped at number 38.

Criminal networks capitalize

Burma isn’t the only source for drugs. Methamphetamines in northeastern China usually comes from North Korea. It’s unclear whether Korean bingdu is produced by organized crime gangs or if the Korean government is directly involved. "Beijing must have an idea but the issue is too embarrassing. For geopolitical reasons, China supports North Korea on the international stage. It also supports Burma. Either directly or by negligence, these two neighbors supply the “ice” affecting its population," explains a Chinese researcher.

The growing demand is pushing some networks to localize part of their production in China. Authorities say they shut down 244 underground labs in 2008, 378 in 2010, mostly producing methamphetamines. "For criminal organizations, setting up labs in China is logical because the country has become a major market. And the pharmaceutical elements that are needed to make these synthetic drugs are easily found there," says Gary Lewis, from the UN bureau against drugs and criminality in the East-Asia/Pacific region.

In Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan province, authorities are trying to restrict access to pseudoephedrine, a basic element in the production of "crystal meth." A tough job as it is the most popular cold remedy.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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