East Asia is in the midst of an intensifying struggle with methamphetamine trafficking that has led to dramatic political changes. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, elected on a populist agenda, has made the swift elimination of narcotics trafficking the central promise of his administration. While his methods have largely drawn criticism from the international community, China has backed his campaign, citing its own concerns about the growth of drugs (Inquirer [Philippines], July 20, 2016). This is not without cause. China is also facing domestic troubles due to rising production of cheap methamphetamine and increasing rates of addiction.
Shabu, or methamphetamine (“meth” for short), is the drug of choice for most of the Philippines’s 1.7 million addicts (Philippine Star, December 16, 2016). In July 2016, Duterte, with his typical bluntness, issued death threats against three prominent Chinese drug lords and accused China of harboring narcotics smugglers (SCMP, July 28, 2016). To date, Chinese nationals do play a role in the Philippine drug trade, although the vast majority of traffickers are local Filipinos (Inquirer, July 7, 2016). To make matters more complicated, the Philippine press has a tendency to lump Mainlanders, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, Macanese and members of the Chinese diaspora into one umbrella term—“Chinese”—thus creating further confusion on the origins of “Chinese drug lords.” Nevertheless, regular appearances of Chinese individuals in the Philippine drug war highlights China’s role in the Asian narcotics trade (HK Standard, September 8, 2016).
China is the world’s largest cultivator of Ma huang (ephedra sinica; 麻黄). A precursor of meth, Chinese Ma huang is used to manufacture one-third of Asia’s total meth production (2009).  Although Chinese officials frequently downplay the country’s role in this illicit industry, increasing efforts to clamp down on rising meth production shows that the Chinese state does recognize this as a problem (South China Online, January, 3). In recent years, total drug-related criminal cases involving opiates shrunk to 30 percent while cases relating to meth and synthetic drugs climbed to 60 percent. In 2014, there were 1,459,000 registered synthetic drug addicts, 1,771 percent higher than 2005’s 78,000. A 2013 study of 2,773 recovering synthetic drug addicts in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong, Yunnan and Hunan provinces show that meth was the first choice of 65 percent of respondents, followed by the meth precursor ephedrine (27 percent) and meth tablets known as magu (4 percent). 
Although domestic and international consumers of Chinese meth are mostly city-dwellers, China’s meth trade is actually rooted in the countryside. An examination of China’s most active meth manufacturing region—Guangdong Province’s Lufeng City—provides insight into the rise and resilience of meth trafficking based out of rural China.
Lord Thunder’s Domain
Sandwiched between the special economic zones of Shenzhen and Shantou is the tri-city area commonly referred to as Hailufeng—composed of Shanwei, Haifeng and Lufeng. Although the region is home to several natural harbors, its economy remains stagnant and is often overlooked by investors. Yet underneath the gray surface, subterranean business is booming. Since the beginning of Reform and Opening-up, the tri-city region has accumulated a reputation for illegal activities. As a local saying goes, “Up in the heavens there is Lord Thunder; down on earth, there are the people of Hailufeng (天上雷公, 地下海陆丰).”
The City of Lufeng is probably the most lawless of the three. In the 1980s, Lufeng was known for smuggling. In the decade following, it gained infamy for counterfeiting. Now, Lufeng typically occupies headlines as the busiest region for narcotics manufacturing. Prior to a major crackdown in December 2013, the region supplied one-third of China’s meth. 
Most of Lufeng’s meth comes from its suburbs and outlying areas, and in particular, an area called sanjia (三甲地区), made up of three towns—Jiazi, Jiaxi, Jiadong. A hub of criminal enterprises, in 2016, half of Lufeng’s 328 wanted criminal suspects came from sanjia, and 65 belong to the village of Boshe—once China’s largest meth factory (The Paper, May 18, 2016).
A little over two kilometers from the sea, Boshe is a village of 14,000 all belonging to the Cai lineage (族). During the early hours of December 29, 2013, 3,000 police, armed police and border control troops descended upon Boshe (BBC, July 10, 2015). After encircling the village, the authorities began their largest ever operation seeking to completely root out drug manufacturing. By daylight, the police had broken up eighteen narcotics gangs and arrested more than 182 gang members. Seventy-seven drug labs, as well as an explosives manufacturing plant, were destroyed. A total of three metric tons of meth, along with twenty-three tons of precursor chemicals were seized. Nine guns, 62 rounds of ammunitions and one grenade were also netted (People’s Daily, January 3, 2014).
The village of Boshe has been subdued ever since. As of May 2016, 43 security cameras and more than 40 policemen monitor the villagers’ every move (The Paper, May 25, 2016). But only a few years ago, Boshe was the richest village in the area, nicknamed “Little Hong Kong” for its wealth. More than two-thirds of its villagers were involved in meth manufacturing (RFA, January 3, 2014). Money and precursor chemicals flowed in daily. New country homes and refurbished ancestral shrines reminded visitors of Boshe’s opulence. And neighboring villages even began to circulate a rumor that Boshe worshippers burned wads of newly minted notes at ceremonies to honor their ancestors (Guanchazhe, January 18, 2014).
Boshe’s Rise as a Meth Village
How did Boshe become involved in the meth trade? What was its position in the value chain? Who led the enterprise? To answer these questions, we must start with the story of one man—Boshe’s former party secretary, Cai Dongjia.
A native of Boshe, details about Cai’s early life is murky except that he was a gregarious man who made good investments in personal relations. Once the security chief of Boshe, Cai left for Shenzhen in 1999 as narcotics manufacturing in Lufeng intensified (Guangdong Provincial Public Security Department, December 15, 2015). After returning home in 2005, Cai rejoined the bureaucracy with the help of a few old friends in the government and was appointed the village committee secretary and Party secretary of Boshe a year later (QQ News, March 30, 2016).
Cai came from the largest of the Cai lineage’s three houses (房). Therefore, not only is he the Party’s man but also he carries a weighty responsibility to the Cai lineage as their informal clan leader. Initially, Cai wanted to lead his fellow kinsmen on a path to wealth (致富) legally. But after failures to introduce cash crops, Cai, along with a few close relatives, decided to try narcotics manufacturing (China Dissertation Online, June 30, 2014).
Using his personal connections, Cai gained support from corrupt superiors in the government and even made partnership with police officers.  Business boomed like never before. Young men, elementary pupils, and even septuagenarians joined the enterprise. Investments poured in from businessmen and crime syndicates based in the Pearl River Delta that provided Boshe men with funds to purchase Ma huang from Fujian province, which was shipped to Boshe by the truckloads (The Paper, May 25, 2016; People’s Daily, January 2, 2014). Barrels of ephedrine—processed from Ma huang—and over-the-counter medications containing ephedrine or pseudoephedrine were also stockpiled in the village.  Meth production was conducted as a township or village enterprise, where each household took up a division of the labor. The finished products were then transported to the nearest harbor, only 2.5 km away, to be loaded onto vessels that sailed to the Pearl River Delta. A common fishing vessel could carry two tons of meth if properly concealed (Xinhua News, June 22, 2016). Upon arrival to the Pearl River Delta, Triads from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau made purchases and drove the goods onward to the international destinations, but especially the Southeast Asian states of Malaysia and the Philippines. 
Meth Manufacturing Techniques in China
The “Lufeng Method” is a way of cooking meth—modeled upon the ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction method that was perfected in its namesake town before spreading throughout China. Meth manufacturing in Lufeng, which was once done openly, has gone underground after the December 2013 crackdown. Intimidated by the heightened security, Lufengnese meth cookers left their hometowns to set up labs elsewhere around Guangdong.
One such operation was rapidly built in a mountainous and swampy area 371 km away from Lufeng. This small-scale meth factory designed by Lufeng meth cooks produced 837.3 kg of meth in only six days. Funded by investors from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the factory, built by brick and wood, was divided into three areas: living quarters, work area and garbage disposal. Carefully designed, factory supported rotating 24-hour shifts for a maximized output (Xinhua News, November 4, 2015).
With the government crackdown on supply raising meth prices from the wholesale price of 20,000 RMB per kilogram in 2013 to 30,000 RMB per kilogram in 2016, the lure of greater profit will continue to entice cooks and traffickers to defy the law (Wenweipo, December 31, 2016).
Impact of Meth on Rural China
From criminal’s perspective, there are a few short-term positive and long-term negative effects regarding meth manufacturing. Employment and financial gains are the greatest incentives for most people in the drug trade. An average Boshe laborer makes 1,000 RMB per month. But as a drug trafficker, one can easily make a few hundred, if not more than a thousand RMB a day (China News, January 1, 2014). Although fast money comes with equally high risk since China has severe penalties for drug dealing, and authorities have not been reluctant in executing traffickers (Sohu News, June 27, 2015).
The impact of meth on society and the environment raises long-term developmental obstacles for local communities. Drug addiction is increasing in Lufeng, in congruence with the provincial pattern (QQ News, May 30, 2012). Addicts to one kind of hard drug are more likely to try other drugs, which is reflected in the surge of HIV/AIDS in rural Lufeng through needle sharing.  Gun crime is also a concern in these areas since traffickers are likely to be armed (South China News, October 14, 2016; People’s Daily, October 28, 2016). Poisonous waste from meth production, freely disposed, contaminates the environment and retards economic development in the long run (Sohu News, January 3, 2014).
State Initiatives in Combating Meth Manufacturing
In addition to enacting laws to limit the public’s access to medications containing ephedrine/pseudoephedrine (Sina News, December 27, 2012), the government’s response so far has mostly been the tried and true method of strike hard (严打), where it uses overwhelming force and a harsh application of the law to quickly reduce crime. Although Boshe is now a poster child of China’s anti-meth efforts, one author wonders how long this may last, given the costliness of maintaining such a campaign.  Yes, meth making is down in one village, but surrounding narcotics villages in the sanjia region are still in business (QQ News, January 18, 2014). Not to mention that despite the crackdown, Boshe villagers are still making meth, if not, traveling to new parts of China along with other Lufengese in search of a freer business climate to set up shop. Moreover, Chinese anti-drug police forces are fraught with internal challenges such as low pay, insufficient training, understaffing, overburdening, low morale and bureaucratic politics. China still has a distance to cover in developing a strong law enforcement counterweight against the deadly attraction of meth. 
There is no singular approach to solving the problem of meth trafficking in China. Ninety percent of people and goods enter China through Guangdong, which accords all of the province’s coastal cities a natural advantage in trade that includes drug trafficking. Lufeng’s stagnant human development limits economic mobility for its residents.  Take education for example. Despite population growth, the number of middle school students in attendance dropped from 147,000 in 2010 to 107,600 in 2014. Likewise, elementary school students in attendance diminished from 205,700 in 2010 to 116,500 in 2014 (China Data Online).
But the determining factor influencing the meth trade is official collusion with drug traffickers. Local officials—including policemen—worked with Cai Dongjia’s enterprise. Yet this is far from the only instance.  Lufeng’s city government, especially its public security bureau has a notorious reputation for being a cesspool of corruption. Two former Lufeng public security bureau chiefs, Chen Junpeng and Chen Yukeng, were convicted of taking bribes from and protecting drug traffickers.  In 2013, the entire Beidi dispatch station was placed under investigation due to similar concerns (Hailufeng Info., April 8, 2016).
Shanwei, the prefectural-level city that governs Lufeng, fares no better. Ma Weiling, the former Shanwei public security bureau chief and one-time provincial drug czar, sold official posts at will to the highest bidder and shielded city officials from criminal investigation. When Cai Zhiquan, a deputy of Shanwei city’s people’s congress was identified as a suspect in a shooting incident, Ma helped him avoid criminal charges after accepting a bribe of 1.3 million HKD (CCP News, April 8, 2016). Without Ma’s support, Chen Junpeng and Chen Yukeng, powerful patrons of Lufeng’s traffickers, would not have been Lufeng’s top cops (CCP News, October 21, 2015).
The alarming death toll of the Philippine drug war has refocused the world’s attention on Asia’s drug trade. At the center of Asian meth manufacturing, China’s successes and failures in combating drug trafficking will have regional, if not global, implications. Although the current hardline approach did have an impact on reducing meth manufacturing in one area, strike hard campaigns only last for so long. Official collusion with traffickers and economic underdevelopment cannot be addressed by simple, quick fixes. What is needed is a regular application of the law by professional law enforcers supported by a corruption-free government, and more importantly, greater investment in human development to expand opportunities for vulnerable communities like the townships and villages in the vicinity of Lufeng.
China’s drug problem will continue to highlight a number of issues that the Chinese government faces. The rural-urban divide is changing crime and public safety. Domestic stability will increasingly take up more resources of the state and further strain the links of authority that tie the central government and the provinces. Despite the growth of China’s security budget in recent years, the state’s seemingly inability to stamp out the drug business shows us the corrupting effects of the trade on local administrators who protected traffickers for financial gains. Moreover, China’s internal security strategy, which prioritizes political crime and threats against national unity, gives traffickers space where they can operate without impunity.
Zi Yang is an independent researcher and consultant on China affairs. His research centers on Chinese internal security issues. He holds an M.A. from Georgetown University and a B.A. from George Mason University.
- Ralph A. Weisheit and William L. White, Methamphetamine: Its History, Pharmacology, and Treatment (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2009), p. 134.
- Xinmin Fan, “我国毒品社会问题新趋势与应对思路 [New Trends in Narcotics-Related Social Problems in Our Country and Thoughts on Counter-Measures],” Social Sciences in Guangdong, no. 2 (March 2015), p. 189; Yanping Bao et al., “我国五地区合成毒品滥用者中海洛因多药滥用特征及相关因素分析 [The Characteristics and Associated Factors of Heroin Poly Drug Use among Synthetic Drug Users in 5 Areas in China],” Chinese Journal of Drug Dependence, no. 6 (December 2015), pp. 452, 453.
- Jiadi Zhuang, Ning Bin, and Guangjie Li, “群体性事件形成的演化博弈分析——以广东省陆丰市毒品博社村为例 [Analysis of the Evolutionary Game of Mass Incidents—using Guangdong Province’s Lufeng City’s Boshe Village as an Example],” Market Weekly, no. 9 (September 2014), p. 85.
- We do not know exactly how many officials were involved in Lufeng’s drug trafficking, and we may never find out. Cai Dongjia might, in fact, be a lower-level player who was sacrificed to protect higher-ups. Likewise, we do not know the exact number of police officials involved in the drug trade. However, with a meager salary of 2,000 RMB per month, traffickers easily bought off the policemen. See: Gang Liu, “广东‘制毒第一村’何以成为‘法外之地’ [Why Did Guangdong’s ‘First Narcotics Manufacturing Village’ Became a ‘Lawless Territory’],” Country, Agriculture, Farmers, no. 2 (February 2014), p. 37.
- There are about 31 types of common Chinese medications that contain ephedrine/pseudoephedrine.
- 67.7 percent of drug traffickers arrested by the Guangdong police from January 2015 to May 2016 were Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau nationals. See: Sohu News, June 23, 2016. Yuanyuan Xu and Zhixin Qiu, “论广东制造毒品犯罪的现状、趋势与对策 [On the Status Quo and Developing Trend of Drug-Making Crimes in Guangdong Province and Countermeasures],” Journal of Political Science and Law, no. 5 (October 2015), p. 22.
- Xuezhong He et al., “2012—2015 年广东省陆丰 HIV/AIDS 流行特征分析 [Analysis of the Spread of HIV/AIDS in Guangdong Province’s Lufeng],” Journal of Applied Preventive Medicine, no. 4 (August 2016), p. 308.
- Fei Zhu, “广东禁毒法制建设和法律适用存在的问题与对策——以粤东地区制毒犯罪严打整治为视角 [Problems Existing in the Construction of Guangdong’s Anti-Drug Laws and Legal Application and Countermeasures——From the Perspective of Striking-Hard Campaign against Drug Crimes in the East Region of Guangdong Province],” Journal of Political Science and Law, no. 5 (October 2015), pp. 26–27.
- Weili Zhu, “当前粤东地区禁毒工作队伍建设中存在的问题分析 [Analysis of Current Problems in Building Anti-Narcotics Forces in Eastern Guangdong Region],” Public Security Education [公安教育], no. 12 (December 2015), pp. 17–18.
- Qingcai Sheng, “广东黑社会性质组织犯罪成因研究 [Research on the Reasons for Crimes by Organized Criminal Gangs in Guangdong],” Journal of Guangdong Ocean University, no. 5 (October 2009), p. 42.
- The Chinese Communist Party never intended to portray itself as absolutely corrupt and irredeemable. Thus, corrupt scandals exposed by the official press only shows the tip of the iceberg.
- Chen Junpeng accepted bribes that totaled 1.66 million RMB and 200,000 HKD. Chen Yukeng’s case involved bribes totaling 2.5 million RMB and 940,000 HKD. See: Xinhua News, July 1, 2015; Xinhua News, October 22, 2015.