BANLAO JOURNAL: A Corner of China in the Grip of a Lucrative Heroin Habit

Howard W. French – The New York Times

Visitors can see pictures of Banlao and the surrounding region in my Yunnan picture gallery (Click to view pictures).
BANLAO, China – The road to this town, treacherous and narrow, ends after miles of knee-deep mud on a mountain path that looks down upon the clouds. It was market day, and the gently sloping main street was so choked with people and goods changing hands that for all the tattered clothes and sun-creased faces, the place radiated a measure of prosperity.
The magic of the larger market that has lifted so much of China out of poverty has bypassed most of this region, where peasants live as they have for generations, carrying firewood on their backs and farming the steep, terraced slopes by hand. But Banlao, otherwise lost in the shadows of tall mountains, where neighboring Myanmar, formerly Burma, looms visible in the distance, has another source of wealth.
The authorities say 10 percent of China’s illegal narcotics traffic enters through the surrounding Lancang Prefecture and 85 percent of the arrests in this part of southwestern Yunnan Province are made in this one hamlet.
During a simple lunch of noodles at a sidewalk restaurant, a local man was asked where to look for signs of the illicit wealth. Barely interrupting his meal, he gestured with his head to a storefront across the street. With its slatted doors, big glass windows and new tile roof, it indeed stood out, with the clean look of a Japanese sushi restaurant.
“That was a restaurant built by a drug dealer,” the man announced casually. “He was arrested, then executed.” As he spoke, he lifted his hand to his head, mimicking a pistol, and pulled the trigger. If what the man was saying was true, it would be a typical fate.
Local folk say that perhaps 70 percent of the shops on the single business street were built by people who made their money in the heroin trade, and that half of those arrested have been executed.
Heroin has a particularly repugnant resonance for the Chinese government, tied up so deeply as it is with the country’s subjugation at the hands of Western powers in the 19th century, when British trading companies promoted opium addiction among Chinese as a way, in part, of balancing their trade.
Drug use was almost eradicated under Communist rule but returned after the easing of border controls and social constraints in the 1980’s. Since then, year after year of strenuous campaigns have done little to stem the flow of narcotics across the border from Myanmar and Laos.
The poverty here is one cause. The nearest junior high school is still several miles away, on a road so bad that only tractors can navigate it. Electricity arrived five years ago, and mobile phone service came just last year.
Some here say one million yuan, or about $120,000, is not an uncommon payback for those who are willing to hike the 20 miles or so into Myanmar to sneak the drug back into China, where a portion will be sold by crime syndicates for domestic use and the bulk of it exported.
“The police have been fighting this problem intensively since the 1980’s, but people are so poor here there’s no difference between being alive or dead,” said Mo Zaigang, 36, a peasant who together with friends spoke with a stranger in the backyard of a tumbledown, barrackslike home, where peas dried on the ground in the sun. “The only way is going out,” he said, using the common shorthand for seeking one’s fortune in the drug trade.
As his friends nodded in assent, Mr. Mo added, matter-of-factly: “I am sure you can make a lot of money if you’re not caught. Others get nothing, though, and just lose their lives.”
With that, the men’s conversation shifted to the ebb and flow of misery here, from the severest times they could remember, before the reforms begun 25 years ago, when collective farming was still in force. One man said people ate leaves off trees to survive.
As China’s economic liberation gathered speed in the 1980’s and the borders opened a bit here, many people became migrant workers on poppy farms in Myanmar, getting their first taste of the heroin trade. Then came outright trafficking, followed by severe crackdowns, with big police sweeps, compulsory re-education programs and frequent executions.
But the enforcement efforts have hardly dented the drug trade because, many here say, poverty is not the only cause. Official corruption, they say, a plague that spares little in China, is also a factor.
Tales abound of how relatives of trafficking suspects have offered large sums of money to the police, only to have the cash disappear and their relatives sent away for imprisonment or execution. In China people can be executed for possession of as little as 50 grams of heroin, less than two ounces.
Whether true or not, other commonly heard stories are more sinister still, involving rumored collusion between Burmese drug lords and the Chinese police.
“People buy the drugs from a boss in Burma, and the boss informs on them to the police,” said Mo Shuli, a resident in another part of the town whose nephew was recently arrested, having been found with a friend in possession of over 1,000 grams, more than two pounds. “The boss takes the money, and the police here get to boast of another success.”
Mr. Mo, whose wife cut and diced sections of heart of palm to feed to a hog that grunted impatiently in its pen nearby, made no attempt to claim his nephew’s innocence.
“The boy needed money, and nobody warned him in time,” he said. “He is locked up now, and has left behind his little daughter. I am sure he is filled with regret.”
Copyright The New York Times 2004

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