HONG KONG — Cai Dongjia appeared before a judge in a courtroom in southeast China last month to hear the court condemn him to death. Two of his partners are due to be executed as well, although not for another two years.
Cai was no common thug. He was a Chinese Communist Party branch secretary in Guangdong Province. Those who join the party and receive the CCP’s political indoctrination are told the position is a bit like a class prefect, a figure meant to set an example for new members of the party as he presides over its daily affairs. But Cai had a very dark side. Aside from his official title, he was also known as “The Godfather of Meth.”
The saga apparently began in 2011, when Cai decided that his salary as local party boss was not enough and, a la Breaking Bad, chemistry could yield a second income. He located a source for ephedrine and periodically purchased clusters of the stuff at around US$300,000 per barrel. His partners cooked meth from it. When they had a stockpile of a few dozen or even a couple of hundred kilos, quick sales turned their product into a few million yuan.
As the operation expanded, Cai transformed the rural community of Boshe village, population 14,000, into a meth production hub, much like factory towns that specialize in assembling a single type of product. Adults were mules, dealers, or cooks. Children split open cold medicine capsules and earned a monthly wage of up to US$1,600.
Homes in Boshe were traditional houses built generations ago, and wouldn’t look out of place in Cantonese period films, but the cars parked in dirt lots were imported European vehicles, well beyond the means of countryside peasants. Eventually, old houses were knocked down and luxurious villas took their place. Outsiders were not welcome, and lookouts blanketed the territory. Locals called Boshe “The Fortress.”
At around 4 a.m. on Dec. 29, 2013, Chinese police mounted an incredible assault on what the authorities called “Guangdong’s Number One Drug Village.”
Three thousand police officers were mobilized for the operation, supported by canine units, speedboats, and helicopters. The reported results were staggering. Eighteen separate drug gangs were arrested. Seventy-seven drug production sites were shut down. A bomb maker’s lab was raided. In total, 3,000 kilos (over three tons) of methamphetamine were seized, as well as 260 kilos of ketamine and 23 tons of chemicals used in the production processes. In some houses, all areas except the bedroom were converted into meth labs. The raid was a massive success for the police, with 182 men and women taken into custody, including 14 CCP officials.
In the center of it all was Cai Dongjia, whose ascent to kingpin status made him one of China’s most wanted men. A senior narcotics officer claimed Cai’s network in Boshe produced one-third of all the meth sold in the country. Even though Cai was arrested and now faces the death penalty, his intimidating presence lingers in Boshe. Villagers claim they know nothing about the drug trade or their former party chief’s arrest. Is it omertà? Amnesia? Fear?
Cai’s meth empire could not have blossomed without police and other officials looking the other way. In his heyday, Cai wielded incredible influence over Boshe. When unwelcome police officers tried to enter the village, townsfolk blocked them under the direction of Cai. If drug lords were arrested, the party chief would use his influence to secure their release. Bribes and threats were part of everyday business, and even the former head of the region’s Public Security Bureau was in Cai’s pocket.
All this was possible, not least, because China has a serious drug problem. Last year, the Xinhua news agency reported the country had 3 million registered drug addicts. Synthetic drugs, like methamphetamine, are more popular than other narcotics, likely because land use is strictly controlled by the government, which means drugs that require agricultural cultivation, like opium, simply cannot be grown.
Even though meth labs have been found in various parts of the country, a report published by the Brookings Institute suggests narcotics produced in Burma make up a much larger share of the drugs available in China. More meth is coming in from North Korea as well.
All this has triggered what might be called China’s own war on drugs, but with some particular historical twists.
Imagery from the 19th century Opium Wars is still vividly present in the collective awareness in China. The British, who were selling opium grown in their Indian colonies to the Chinese, went to war to preserve their market and imposed demeaning treaties on the ruling dynasties. Nationalists see the wars as the starting point of what they call the century of humiliation, a period of severe political, economic, and social degradation, and drug trafficking is intimately tied to the concept of colonial invasion. Addicts are not only seen as individuals with personal flaws, but tumors that form a national weakness.
The use of meth is particularly widespread. Chinese celebrities have been arrested and tested positive for it. Factory workers use it to stay awake during extended or consecutive shifts. Meth is used in karaoke bars, where male patrons pay hostesses to get high with them. In some cases, businessmen share drugs to seal partnerships.
With plenty of users in China, it is not difficult to see why others have followed in Cai’s footsteps. Though Guangdong Province near Hong Kong is the epicenter of meth production in China, police have raided makeshift drug labs in other parts of the country as well. Last May, a 50-year-old chemistry professor from Shaanxi was arrested with six other people. That raid yielded 128 kilos of methcathinone, which is similar to methamphetamine, along with 2,000 kilos of ingredients. The professor also provided recipes and instructions to dealers on how to make methcathinone. In September, a former science teacher in Guangxi was found to have set up a drug lab in his apartment. He had resigned from his teaching position to make drugs, which he sold online.
The crackdown in Cai’s old stomping grounds, Boshe, continues to this day. Last year, police began to offer US$80,000 in reward money for tips that lead to the arrests of leaders in the Chinese drug trade. Remnants of Cai’s network still operate in Guangdong. Together with their North Korean and Southeast Asian counterparts, they supply the meth addicts of China and beyond. Australian authorities have seized two major meth shipments from China this year: a haul worth US$128 million in January; and a $1 billion worth of the stuff hidden in gel bra inserts.
Boshe is now lauded by the Chinese government as a showcase for the achievements in their war on drugs, and to their credit, the police have made great strides in eradicating makeshift meth labs, but the root of the problem persists. The chemicals used in meth production are not difficult to acquire in China. A report by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post indicates all of the materials are regulated but legitimate, suggesting deep-rooted corruption in China’s chemical and pharmaceutical industries. With such easy access to the basic ingredients, there is little to stand in the way of the next Walter White who wants to set up shop in China.