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“It was fun, it was dangerous”: Heroin, young urbanities and opening reforms in China's borderlands

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)762
Number of pages768
JournalInternational Journal of Drug Policy
Issue number4
PublishedJul 2014

King's Authors


An unprecedented flow of opiates flooded China's southern regions in the wake of the country's opening reforms in the 1980s. After the Maoist war on drugs had turned the People's Republic of China into an almost entirely drug-free area for three decades, heroin reappeared to become the most widely used illicit substance in the country. As the number of users rose by 1200% between 1988 and 1998, a generation of young people found themselves facing the consequences of addiction.

Based on ethnographic data collected during 13 months of field research among a community of heroin users in the county-level city of Qilin in Yunnan Province, this paper explores the interplay of historical and social factors that led southern China's young urbanities to turn to heroin in the 1980s and 1990s. Towards this end, it draws on a broad array of research methods including the collection of life histories, extensive participant observation, and focus groups among the members of Qilin's local community of heroin users.

I argue that the spread of heroin among southern China's young urbanities should be read as the aggregate outcome of such seemingly disparate factors as the opening of new global routes for the trafficking of opiates, the almost complete lack of Chinese public discourse around drugs in the immediate post-Mao period, the increased individualization of young people's ambitions, desires and forms of socialization, and the rise of a consumerist market economy in the country.

Based on the data collected, I claim that the boom in the diffusion of heroin use in post-reform China cannot be described exclusively as a matter of deviant individual behaviours. Rather, it has to be interpreted as a complex social act, which is only understandable when framed within the social and historical context in which it was performed.

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