The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia

The Tarnished Crusades

In 1906 the Chinese government started an opium suppression campaign that began a third major phase in the development of Asia's drug traffic. The officially sponsored British contribution was finally eliminated, and domestic cultivation was temporarily, yet drastically, reduced. But as opium became scarce and thus more expensive smokers seeking a substitute as well as those looking for a medicinal cure were increasing led to use morphine, and later its derivative heroin. Secondly, limiting the supply of Chinese opium temporarily changed the pattern of the drug trade with Southeast Asia.

An imperial edict of 1906 announced plans for the elimination of China's opium problem over a ten-year period. The Chinese diplomat Tang Shao-yi, himself a reformed addict, had initiated talks with the British government in 1904. His Majesty's Government signed an agreement that went into effect in 1908, committing itself gradually to reduce the export of Indian opium intended for Hong Kong and China. However, many British officials, particularly those ruling India, were less than wildly enthusiastic about this decision, and continued to express skepticism about China's determination and capacity to conduct an effective suppression campaign. China's production had reduced India's share of the total trade, and opium was no longer the dominant commodity in the China trade, but the government of India was still making some L 3 million annually from opium sales to China. Said the Government of India Finance Department:

If we are called upon to cooperate with China by incurring this great sacrifice of a revenue which we have enjoyed for many years, we are justified to demand that the measure shall be carried out with the utmost consideration of our interests and in such a manner as shall occasion us the least possible inconvenience. (38)

His Majesty's Government stood prepared to resist any effective Chinese tactics that would "discriminate" against foreign opium. (39) Among other things, this meant that the British, who had perfected the technique of opium monopoly for government profit, strenuously objected to the creation of Chinese monopolies intended to regulate and reduce the traffic in imported and domestic opium. British documents for the first years of the suppression campaign are full of accounts of incidents in which Chinese attempts to restrict opium sales provoked outraged cries from opium merchants, who were almost invariably backed up by British officials. (40)

The antiopium campaign was the most successful of all reforms initiated by the Chinese government before the 1911 revolution. Large numbers of opium dens were shut down, and in many cases officials in the countryside moved effectively to eliminate cultivation. But as the drive gathered strength and the supply was reduced, one result was that its price soared. With an eye on profits, the British had agreed only to reduce their exports from India, not to help control imports to China. The distinction was important, for imports of Indian opium actually increased slightly during the period 1907-1911. (41)

Nonetheless, the British government's attitude was changing. An international conference on opium held at Shanghai in 1909 increased the pressure on colonial powers to end the trade. British officials provided evidence of the effectiveness of China's suppression campaign that their more skeptical colleagues could no longer ignore. (42) Even the India Office, although besieged by complaints from opium merchants, became less opposed to a more rapid rate of prohibition. (43)As a result, in 1911

China and Britain signed a second agreement imposing stricter controls on Indian opium exports. Furthermore, British opium was now to be excluded from those provinces where joint Anglo-Chinese inspection showed that domestic production had ceased. Between 1911 and 1915 almost all of China's provinces were declared closed to foreign opium, either with or without the rather cursory formal inspection. (44) Although relatively small quantities of smuggled Indian opium continued to appear in China, the massive official trade was finally eliminated.

By reducing the amount of available opium, China's suppression campaign resulted in the influx of large quantities of European morphine, manufactured from opium produced in the Middle East. Morphine is the primary narcotic element in opium, but the dangers of morphine addiction were not immediately recognized. Its use during the 1880s by Western missionaries in China as a cure for opium addiction had earned it the name "Jesus opium." (45) Morphine imports to China were not restricted until after 1902, when 195,133 ounces of the drug entered legally. (46) From 1903 on it was heavily taxed and the traffic went underground.

During the suppression campaign, morphine was used widely as both a "cure" and as a narcotic. It was less easily detected by inquisitive officials than was opium smoking. More important, because of morphine's potency compared with opium and the ease with which it could be smuggled, it was extremely cheap. In 1909 a British government chemist reported that swallowing morphine would produce the same narcotic effect as smoking opium but at one-ninth the cost. (47) Although most Chinese addicts preferred to swallow or smoke morphine, injections were even cheaper. When cut, one ounce of morphine yielded one to two thousand shots. (48) Generally, however, only the poorest Chinese injected the drug. (49)

At first, most of the morphine entering China came from Europe and the United States via Japan. While their government strictly controlled the drug at home, Japanese nationals began to sell morphine in China and then to manufacture it there. (50) And by 1920, according to one estimate, enough was arriving annually via Japan alone to give every person in China four doses. (51)

Chinese poppy cultivation, particularly in the Southwest, probably never completely ceased during the suppression drive. But there was much less opium available to smokers. In Yunnan this was reflected by a larger demand for Burmese opium, especially during the years 1911-1917, as well as by an increase in smuggling from Burma and Thailand. (52) Smuggling became a highly organized business involving the investment of large amounts of money with the promise of tremendous profits. One caravan dispatched from Yunnan to the Shan States in northern Burma consisted of I 10 men equipped with 72 guns, who paid the equivalent of L 17,000 for opium.(53) Another group traveling to Rangoon in 1917, probably to buy Indian opium, included 300 people divided into bands, which bargained collectively for all the opium they bought. (54)

Not all the opium in the Burma-Yunnan trade was used in China. The Yunnan government had contracted to supply opium to the French monopoly in northern Indochina. By 1912, when the local product could no longer be bought easily or cheaply, the Yunnan authorities were sending agents into the northern Shan States to buy opium, which they then sold to the French. (55)The same type of trading went on to a limited extent within Tonkin itself. Poppy was being grown illegally by the Meo tribesmen on the Black River and by the Nungs, who lived in the Kwangsi-Tonkin border region between the Red and Clear rivers. In 1912 each of these tribes produced about twenty-two hundred pounds of lower-grade opium, ordinarily worth less than half of what Chinese opium brought when sold to the French monopoly. Chinese traders were accused of buying this opium in order to" peddle it to the French as Chinese opium for an easy 100 percent profit. (56)

Morphine usage and smuggling were but two problems of many resulting from the suppression campaign. The plan for rapid eradication of domestic opium had several serious flaws. Some of these stemmed from the stubbornness of the problem. Opium smoking had become deeply entrenched as a social and economic institution. The habit ravaged lower-class smokers, as the cycle of poverty, despair, and addiction persisted. And there were many upper-class smokers for whom opium, particularly the more expensive foreign brands, was a prized luxury, a status symbol. Even the Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi, whose edict began the campaign, used the pipe. (57) One gentleman diligently taught his married daughter to smoke lest the family be considered too poor to afford it.(58) Permanent cures, especially for the poor, were few and far between. By 1913 one estimate was that no more than 10 percent of Yunnan's smokers had given up their opium. (59)

In areas where the economy was geared to opium growing, simply destroying the crop created hardship and resentment, not reform. Moreover, if the authorities were corrupt, "suppression" was often an exercise in hypocrisy: Accompanied by such show of force as they have been able to command, the officials in charge have sat down outside a few unhappy Kachin and Lisaw villages suspected of the crime of planting opium, surrounded the guilty headmen and extorted from them the last available rupee, and then after duly skirting or passing in well-screened chairs through the offending fields, returned to their headquarters and duly reported that they have seen no opium growing throughout their extensive and arduous campaigns. (60)

Political upheaval was perhaps the main cause of China's failure to eliminate opium. The imperial structure, which had endured for centuries, could not institute sufficient reforms to prevent its own downfall and finally gave way in the 1911 revolution. The new Republican government, under the militarist Yuan Shih-k'ai, vowed to continue the fight against opium. But China was rapidly disintegrating into areas controlled by independent military rulers. Yunnan and Szechwan, never subject to absolute control from Peking, enjoyed de facto independence after 1911. For many poppy cultivators, as well as regional governments, the revolution meant the end of interference by the central government. Growers in Szechwan and other provinces resumed production of large quantities of opium in 1912, By 1916 the Yunnan authorities were quietly encouraging opium sales in order to raise money for their treasury. (61) And by 1918 Yunnan's government, following other provinces, had abandoned all pretence of suppression and was openly promoting poppy cultivation. (62)

China had ceased to be a unified country. Successive governments claiming central power in Peking became progressively weaker, the prize of warlords whose presidencies were national in name only. Their armies needed money, and in 1918 the current pretenders in the capital were encouraging the revival of the lucrative opium traders. (63) Many groups and individuals, chiefly in the cities, continued to oppose opium use. But they were for the most part ignored as the drug became the major source of financial support for China's warlord armies. On the cast coast, in the province of Fukien, about 70,000 troops under five principal generals as well as the navy and marines are all being supported by opium taxation. Predecessors of the present generals had collected land taxes three years in advance, and the only means left for raising necessary funds . . . was either to collect one or two further years of land taxes or impose a special tax, which could only be raised by opium cultivation. The latter was decided on. Wherever troops were stationed, opium growing was made compulsory. Magistrates issued the orders and soldiers enforced them. Riots have been frequent and in several places numbers of peasants have been shot down and villages burnt. (64)

Although British India was finally obliged to stop exporting opium for the China market, there was no similar restraint placed on opium sales to and by Southeast Asian monopolies. Business was good; the decrease in China's supply when suppression was most effective lessened the threat from smuggled opium. Even after the Chinese drive failed, opium sales remained a bulwark of colonial budgets. When colonialists could no longer ignore international protest over the drug traffic, their government monopolies were advertised as a means of drug control, while continuing to yield profits to the official pusher.

Although during the 1920s China regained the position of foremost opium producer, the size of her crop probably never again reached the astronomical levels of the years before 1907. Lower production was in large part due to the massive influx and subsequent domestic manufacture of the opium drugs morphine and heroin.

Initially, most of the heroin used in China was of European, mainly French, manufacture derived from Middle Eastern opium. The mid 1920s saw a steady increase in French heroin shipments direct to China and also to Japan, where most of it was transshipped for the China market. Like morphine, heroin was believed at first to be effective in combating opium addiction. Both could be legally imported in small quantities for medical use, but the distinction between legal and illegal, medically valid and narcotic, blurred as addiction spread, smuggling increased and legally imported drugs were diverted into the illicit market. By the mid 1920s recipes such as the following, for 10,000 "antiopium" pills, were common: combine 2 ounces heroin, 1/2 ounce strychnine, I ounce quinine, 5 ounces caffeine, 48 ounces sugar of milk, and 10 ounces of refined sugar. Mix well. As an indication of how many of these pills were being produced, 2,701 pounds of strychnine, whose only legitimate use in China was for fur trapping, was legally imported in 1923. Caffeine imports for the same year totaled 48,236 pounds. (65) Legal French exports of heroin to China alone for the years 1925-1929 reached 3,082 pounds. (66)

As China became a major heroin consumer, Shanghai, her largest, most industrialized city, emerged as a primary center for heroin manufacture and distribution. From there the drug moved south, seeking new outlets. In 1927 heroin appeared in Hong Kong in the form of a pink antiopium pill that was smoked rather than swallowed. (67) Hong Kong authorities in 1930 confiscated 847 pounds of heroin, more than w s seized in that year in any other country except France. (68) During the 1930s Shanghai was the source of much of America's illicit heroin. (69)

Shanghai's eminence as an international drug capital was closely linked with the rise to power of China's Nationalist movement. During the chaotic 1920s warlord struggles for power and money accelerated the disruption and impoverishment of the country. Among the groups trying to reestablish a centralized state was the Kuomintang (KMT) or Nationalist party, whose objectives were at first more progressive than those of most of the warlord competition. In 1924 the KMT under Sun Yat-sen allied itself with the fledgling Chinese Communist party in order to strengthen itself politically and promote badly needed reforms. However, as Chiang Kai-shek gained power within the party after Sun's death in 1925, he began to break with the Communists and move toward an alliance with more conservative groups. During the Northern Expedition of 1926-1928 Chiang's KMT armies expanded his political and economic base, defeating warlord rivals and gaining support from many people who demanded an end to warlordism, along with reforms in land, labor, and social policies.

Yet the manner in which Chiang took control repudiated most of the KMT's progressive ideals. Struggles with warlords often ended in coalition, not change, as they agreed to join the Nationalist government while retaining control of their own territories. The KMT leader sought support in the countryside from the old ruling class, the gentry; social and economic injustice intensified and the urgent need for land reform was ignored. However, Chiang's ambition of attaining power over the entire country was never realized, although the Nationalists did become established in China's major coastal cities, which remained their primary base of support until the Japanese invasion of 1937.

Chiang's control of Shanghai was made possible with the aid of two main groups. Wealthy merchants and foreign capitalists supported the KMT with the understanding that there would be no reforms that threatened their interests. And Shanghai's major criminal groups strengthened their own hold on official power by enabling Chiang to destroy the city's Communist party and labor movement in 1927.

These Shanghai criminal organizations were dominated by two secret society groups called the Green and Red Circles or Gangs. Secret societies, whether political, social or criminal, were traditionally an important force in Chinese society whenever central authority broke down. During the nineteenth century the Red and Green Gangs had drawn their membership from people involved in transporting grain and smuggling salt along the Grand Canal, China's primary north-south inland waterway. After 1911 these groups shifted their activities to the cities of central China, particularly to Shanghai. (70)

Shanghai had been an important Chinese center for the opium traffic since the 1840s, when Britain's victory in the Opium War opened the port to foreign trade and the establishment of foreign-controlled areas or concessions, which by the 1930s included almost a third of the city's 3.5 million people. The city's tradition of involvement in opium and other vices that tend to accompany the Western presence in Asia was tailor-made for the Green and Red Gangs. Both evolved into criminal organizations whose role in the narcotics trade and in the antiCommunist movement suggests parallels with the roles of the Sicilian Mafia and Corsican syndicate groups in Europe.

One of Shanghai's most influential citizens was Tu Yueh-sheng, narcotics overlord, anti-Japanese patriot and leader of the Green Gang, who began his career in Shanghai's French Settlement, a noted center of illicit activities where criminals were permitted to operate freely. In exchange for tax profits on vice, the French turned the administration of the settlement over to the gangs. (71) Tu became the protege of a man known as Pockmarked Huang, who was the chief of detectives in the French concession and a major Green Gang leader. (72) In addition to owning several opium dens, Huang served an important function as intermediary in negotiations and disputes between various groups in the foreign-controlled and Chinese settlements.

Prior to 1918 Shanghai's opium traffic was based in the British concession, under the control of Chinese from the Swatow area of Kwangtune province. In 1918 the British concession cracked down on opium, depriving the Swatow group of its base and opening the traffic to takeover by the Green Gang operating from the French concession . (73) During the 1920s Tu Yueh-sheng unified the competing gangster organizations involved in the drug traffic and extended his influence from the French Settlement out to the more prosperous International Settlement.

Tu became one of the "Big Three" among the Shanghai gangsters, working with Pockmarked Huang and Chang Hsiao-lin. This unholy triumvirate controlled the city's underworld in early 1927, when Chiang's Northern Expedition forces approached. In late February 1927 labor unions allied with the KMT moved against warlord control and foreign economic domination and began a general strike, planning to welcome Chiang's armies to a liberated Shanghai. For his part, Chiang Kai-shek was actively courting the support of wealthy conservative and foreign businessmen; a strong united labor movement was a major impediment. Consequently, in late February, Chiang's forces delayed their advance toward the city, hoping that reprisals by the British-run International Settlement police and the Chinese garrison commander would break the strike and destroy its leadership. (74)

Despite bloody reprisals, labor organizers ordered a second strike tobegin March 21, a massive display of workers' power that shut down the city once again in anticipation of the KMT's victorious advance. Although there was disturbing evidence that Chiang was beginning to conduct a violent purge of Communists and suspected Communists in the cities under his control, the Communist leadership, with the encouragement of Comintern advisers, doggedly continued to support the alliance and, with increasing difficulty, ignored the ominous signs of KMT treachery.

The strike caused considerable consternation in the Chinese and foreign business communities, and Chiang set about persuading these interests to support him, simultaneously avoiding a public declaration of outright hostility toward the Communists. On arriving in Shanghai in late March, he met first with Pockmarked Huang and later with leading Chinese industrialists and bankers who became satisfied that under Chiang's control there would be no further trouble from organized labor. The gratified businessmen then presented him with a "loan" of 3 million Shanghai dollars, the first of a series of lucrative donations. (75)

Chiang had some three thousand troops under his command in the city, pitted against a larger but poorly armed force of workers and Communists. He doubted whether his soldiers could be trusted to turn against the workers' groups, which they considered their main allies, and turned to Tu Yueh-sheng and his colleagues for help. (76) It is widely believed that Chiang in his youth had become a fully initiated member of Shanghai's Green Gang. (77) Regardless of whether this is the case, Chiang and the Green Gang shared a common interest in destroying Shanghai's labor movement. By serving Chiang the gangs could and did increase their influence and wealth. At Chiang's behest, Tu organized a "moderate" labor group, the Common Advancement Association, which recruited and armed thousands of gangsters throughout the City. (78) The Communists and other labor leaders, pathetically, tragically determined to maintain the charade of alliance with the KMT, were taken by surprise and massacred, many of them by Tu's gangsters, beginning April 12, 1927 (79) and continuing sporadically for months. (80)

As a result of this coup, Shanghai's gang leaders grew even more powerful. In appreciation for their services and their delivered and anticipated performance as intermediaries between Chiang and the foreign community, the Big Three were appointed as "honorary advisers" to the Nationalist government." Furthermore, Tu Yueh-sheng was made a major general at Chiang's headquarters, (81) in addition to serving as a municipal official and as an employee of the American-owned Shanghai Power Company. (82) As the purge continued, after 1927 the gangsters, with KMT and foreign support, thoroughly infiltrated Shanghai's labor movement in order to prevent a recurrence of the pre-1927 "threat" from organized labor. In September 1931, for example, one non-Communist labor organizer who had led a tramways strike in the French Settlement was denounced, arrested, and sentenced to ten years' imprisonment after a trial that lasted ten minutes. (83)

Chiang Kai-shek's opium programs further illustrate the gap between the KMT's original political idealism and the sordid reality of conditions under his dictatorship. Like the warlords, Chiang needed money to finance his military campaigns, and in August 1927 the Nationalists legalized the trade, setting up a monopoly to tax opium sales. Before public pressure forced the scheme's abolition in July 1928, the government had made an estimated 40 million Chinese dollars. (84) Unofficial government sponsorship of the opium trade continued, and Tu Yuehsheng was a central figure until 1931, when he reportedly cured his own addiction and dropped out of gambling and the drug traffic, leaving its operation to other members of the Green Gang. To compensate for Tu's financial loss, one of his close friends was given control of the newly formed state lottery, while Tu devoted his full attention to suppressing Shanghai's labor movement. (85)

The most well-publicized Nationalist campaign against opium was begun in 1934. Chiang was beginning a "New Life" movement, which derived from the Confucian belief that individual reform is the key to curing the ills of society. The programs of the "New Life" movement, outmoded and hopelessly inadequate, never began to solve China's pressing social problems. But its idealism and Chiang's own professed Christianity were incompatible with the drug traffic. A national opium suppression bureau was organized whose regulations involved penalties of life imprisonment or death for pushers. (86)

Although improving social welfare was the stated aim of this antiopium campaign, its major objective was to gain control of the financial base of Chiang's warlord opponents. (87) The KMT leader appointed himself commissioner for opium suppression in 1935. By 1936 he had succeeded in rerouting opium moving toward the coast from Yunnan and Kweichow so that it was sent north through Hankow on the Yangtze River and then to Shanghai, thus depriving Kwangsi Province of the opium revenue. (88) Opium production was reduced, but the government generally hoarded seized opium instead of destroying it. According to one source, during the period 1934-1937 the government made an estimated 500 million Chinese dollars from its suppression program. (89)

Japan mounted a full-scale invasion of China in 1937, driving the KMT government into the interior. Although the war in the Pacific halted the flow of heroin from China to the United States after 1941, the drug traffic within China continued. During the war the KMT and the Japanese freely traded a variety of goods, including opium, across mostly stagnant battle lines. Japan played an official role in the narcotics business in occupied China. In Manchuria the Japanese authorities used opium as a revenue source; in 1938 its sale accounted for 8 percent of general budget receipts. Nanking under Japanese occupation had an estimated fifty thousand heroin addicts. And in Shanghai, about one-sixth of the 1.5 million dollars spent every month on drugs was used to buy heroin. (90)'

The Japanese invasion separated Chiang Kai-shek from his main source of financial support. But his government had a store of Szechwanese opium that had been confiscated during the suppression drive. Tu Yueh-sheng took charge of shipping the seized opium to the coast, and eventually it was sold at Macao and Hong Kong, both then under Japanese control, Some of the same stock was finally sold by Shanghai's official monopoly, which operated under Japanese protection. (91)

After Japan's defeat in 1945, Chiang's forces made a speedy return to Shanghai, acting with the support of the American government and the cooperation of the defeated Japanese in order to reaffirm KMT control and forestall the Communists. Once again corruption and vice, including narcotics, flourished with the participation of China's Nationalist officials. (92)

China remained the opium center of Asia until the Communist forces won the civil war in 1949. The new Chinese government was determined to eradicate opium and had both the will and the organization to do so. During the civil war, one visitor commented that "in five months of travel in the communist areas I found not the slightest trace of opium in any form." (93) Successful opium suppression required a drastic change at all levels of the economy. The campaign against cultivation extended to the most remote areas of China, and poppy growers were persuaded to produce other crops. (94) Penalties against drug merchants were ruthlessly enforced by a government that had no economic or political obligations to those engaged in the trade. Shanghai was cleaned up, its Western business interests forced out, its corruption eliminated. According to a high Hong Kong customs official, since 1949 there have been no seizures of opium coming from mainland China. (95) China is no longer a factor in the international narcotics traffic.

The postwar elimination of China as a major drug center and the end of the colonial era and its monopolies in Southeast Asia improved prospects for solving the narcotics problem in Asia. Instead, Southeast Asia has more than filled the gap left by China, particularly in terms of supplying heroin for the U.S. market.