China: Atrocities Overlooked as Individuals Prioritize their Best Interests in Drug Addiction “Rehabilitation”

Photography by Stringer Shanghai/Reuters and Jacksoncam.

Inmates take an oath to resist drugs at a ceremony to mark International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking at a compulsory drug rehabilitation centre in Wuhan

In the past few decades, China has developed significantly; this is most notably demonstrated in its strengthening middle class and the associated improvements in their quality of life, such as the electrification of rural areas and a vastly improved education system. Yet, when one more deeply investigates aspects of Chinese society not typically highlighted, one discovers a very different national reality. Children line the streets begging for food scraps, millions of individuals immigrate illegally to urban areas in a desperate search for employment, and a deeply corrupt legal system perpetuates the prosperity of those in upper classes while systematically disenfranchising all others. International leaders ignore underlying realities to promote their own economic and political partnerships with China, so change is unlikely. This article addresses one specific systemic injustice that is typically overlooked: China’s drug addiction rehabilitation program.

The 2008 Anti-Drug Law of the People’s Republic of China altered Chinese policy regarding drug abuse, calling for the treatment and rehabilitation of illicit drug users. The official Chinese position, as published by the Chinese Embassy to the United States is, “…that drugs are a worldwide public hazard confronting the whole of mankind, and drug control is an imminent and common responsibility incumbent to international society.”[1]

While the Anti-Drug Law seems to have good intentions, in reality it permits the detention and torture of drug users, ultimately perpetuating their addictions and fostering a multitude of human rights abuses. The 2010 Human Rights Watch report “Where Darkness Knows No Limits” explained that this law “expands police power and removes legal protections from people suspected of drug use,” legalizing random drug tests and violating the rights guaranteed to them under Chinese and international law. Forced labor as a mechanism to “re-educate” citizens is engrained as a Chinese political tactic and has been legal since 1957.[2] Re-education centers from the time of Chairman Mao’s rule are now re-purposed to house drug abusers, using similar labor camp tactics as before to combat drug use.[3] “In China, to be a drug addict is to be an enemy of the government,” explains Zhang Wenjun, head of Guiding Star, an organization that provides assistance to recovering addicts.[4] More than a half million individuals are held in these centers at a given time, serving a minimum of two-year sentences, most without ever receiving a fair trial.[5] In camps, individuals are denied rehabilitation counseling and treatment, and those with medical conditions such as tuberculosis and HIV are usually denied medical attention. Concealed drug use is rampant and vocational training to prepare addicts for their release is non-existent. Individuals are forced to contribute unpaid labor for long hours to employers who have contracts with the local police.[6] Vice-director of Daytop, an American-affiliated drug-treatment residence in China, Wang Xiaoguang, describes the centers as little more than “business ventures run by the police.”[7]

Further, these camps are ineffective in achieving their stated goal of reducing drug use in China. Zhang Wenjun explained that within two-years of their release, 98% of individuals relapse and many are forced to return to the camps. Wenjun attributes this failure in part to the stigma of addiction; those arrested for drug abuses are identified as addicts on their national identification cards, meaning they’re never able to escape their past actions and usually are not hired for stable jobs, perpetuating their cycles of addiction.[8]

In March of 2012, twelve United Nations agencies, including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the World Health Organization, the UN Children’s Fund, and UNAIDS issued a joint statement calling on member states to “close compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers and implement voluntary, evidence-informed and rights-based health and social services in the community.”[9] The statement explains, “There is no evidence that these centers represent a favorable or effective environment for the treatment of drug dependence.”[10] Further, while the United Nations has called on international states and organizations to cease funding rehabilitation centers, international groups have largely ignored these requests. For example, a 2012 Harm Reduction International report highlighted more than a million dollars that Australia, Luxemburg, and Sweden provided for capacity building in drug detention centers in Vietnam that are known to subject drug users to forced labor and torture.[11] Also, in June 2012 the United States announced $400,000 of support for the Lao National Commission for Drug Control and Supervision in Laos.[12] As long as drug centers are supported by international funding and continue to be profitable for Asian nations, there is no incentive for these centers to change their tactics or switch to more just, comprehensive strategies that promote actual rehabilitation.


The aforementioned 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “Where Darkness Knows No Limits,” calls for swift and strong reform of the Chinese drug rehabilitation system, with action requested from both Chinese officials and police as well as their international partners and the center’s funding sources. It asks Chinese policymakers to clarify the goals of the Anti-Drug Law and establish guidelines for its implementation that are widely enforced throughout the nation. The Human Rights Watch report explains that these guidelines should entail fair trials for accused drug users, a restriction on drug tests barring cases of reasonable suspicion of drug use, and abolition of forced labor and a shift to medically-based rehabilitation strategies. This would mean removing accused drug user identification from individuals’ national identification cards, ensuring that injection drug users can seek testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS without being detained, and expanding access to voluntary, affordable, community-based outpatient drug dependency treatment. Furthermore, the report asks the international community to stop funding and demand the closure of compulsory drug detention centers and to enforce international law to protect the rights of accused drug users.[13]

If the international community unifies its efforts to lobby China to alter the way in which it addresses drug abuse within its borders, the rights of thousands of individuals can be protected, gains can be made in lowering rates of drug abuse in China through medically sound rehabilitation strategies, and the practice of punishing individuals stuck in the vicious cycle of poverty and addiction can be abolished.

Impetus for action, however, is not strong. International leaders are likely to ignore abuses in favor of self-interested economic and political partnerships with China. While politicians recognize that atrocities occur, they are likely to respond by ignoring these underlying realities, avoiding the confrontation of China’s harsh and seemingly insurmountable challenges. However, one must remember there is still hope that this tendency will change and global leaders and Chinese policy makers will alter their actions.


[1] “Narcotics Control in China,” last modified June 2000,

[2] John Ruwitch. “A jail by another name: China labor camps now drug detox centers.” Reuters, December 2, 2013,

[3] Ruwitch. “A jail by another name.”

[4] Andrew Jacobs, “China Turns Drug Rehab into a Punishing Ordeal.” The New York Times, January 7, 2010,

[5] Jacobs, “China Turns Drug Rehab into a Punishing Ordeal.”

[6] “Where Darkness Knows No Limits,” published January 7, 2010,

[7] Jacobs, “China Turns Drug Rehab into a Punishing Ordeal.”

[8] Jacobs, “China Turns Drug Rehab into a Punishing Ordeal.”

[9] “Joint statement: Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers,” published March 6, 2012,

[10] “Joint statement: Compulsory drug detention and rehabilitation centers.”

[11] “Partners in Crime: International Funding for Drug Control and Gross Violations of Human Rights.” Published June 2012.

[12] “U.S. Announces New Support for Lao Law Enforcement.” Published June 8, 2012.

[13] “Where Darkness Knows No Limits.”


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