BEIJING — Fu Lixin, emotionally exhausted from caring for her sick mother, needed a little pick-me-up. A friend offered her a “special cigarette” — one laced with methamphetamine — and Fu happily inhaled.
The next day, three policemen showed up at her door.
“They asked me to urinate in a cup,” she said. “My friend had been arrested and turned me in. It was a drug test. I failed on the spot.”
Although she said it was her first time smoking meth, Fu, 41, was promptly sent to one of China’s compulsory drug rehabilitation centers. The minimum stay is two years, and life is an unremitting gantlet of physical abuse and forced labor without any drug treatment, according to former inmates and substance abuse professionals.
“It was a hell I’m still trying to recover from,” she said.
According to the United Nations, as many as a half-million Chinese citizens are held at these centers at any given time. Detentions are meted out by the police without trials, judges or appeals. Created in 2008 as part of a reform effort to grapple with the country’s growing narcotics problem, the centers, lawyers and drug experts say, have become de facto penal colonies where inmates are sent to factories and farms, fed substandard food and denied basic medical care.
“They call them detoxification centers, but everyone knows that detox takes a few days, not two years,” said Joseph Amon, an epidemiologist with Human Rights Watch in New York. “The basic concept is inhumane and flawed.”
Human Rights Watch recently issued a report on the drug rehabilitation system, which replaced the Communist Party’s previous approach of sending addicts to labor camps, where they would toil alongside thieves, prostitutes and political dissidents.
The report, titled “Where Darkness Knows No Limits,” calls on the government to immediately shut down the detention centers.
Under the Anti-Drug Law of 2008, drug offenders were to be sent to professionally staffed detox facilities and then released to community-based rehabilitation centers for up to four years of therapeutic follow-up.
But substance abuse experts say the legislation, part of a stated “people-centered” approach to dealing with addiction, has simply given the old system a new name. What is worse, they say, is that it expands the six-month compulsory detentions of old into two-year periods that the authorities can extend by five years.
The community-based rehabilitation centers, treatment experts add, have yet to be established.
Wang Xiaoguang, the vice director of Daytop, an American-affiliated drug-treatment residence in Yunnan province, said the government detox centers were little more than business ventures run by the police. Detainees, he said, spend their days working at chicken farms or shoe factories that have contracts with the local police; drug treatment, counseling and vocational training are almost nonexistent.
“I don’t think this is the ideal situation for people trying to recover from addiction,” Wang said in a phone interview.
In its report, Human Rights Watch, which largely focused on Yunnan, says the abuses at some of the province’s 114 detention centers are even more troubling. Those with serious illnesses, including tuberculosis and AIDS, are often denied medical treatment. Many inmates reported beatings, some of them fatal.
The Office of National Narcotics Control Commission, which administers China’s drug policy, did not respond to requests for comment.
Han Wei, 38, a recovering heroin addict who was released from a Beijing detention center in October, said the guards would use electric prods on the recalcitrant. “At least they’d give us helmets so we wouldn’t injure our heads during convulsions,” he said.
Meals consisted of steamed buns and, occasionally, cabbage-based swill. Showers were allowed once a month. And the remedy for heroin withdrawal symptoms was a pail of cold water in the face. “They didn’t give me a single pill or a bit of counseling,” Han said.
Despite the deprivations, Han, a former nightclub owner, said his two-year sentence achieved the desired goal: It persuaded him to stop a habit he began in 1998. “I’m never going back,” he said.
Zhang Wenjun, who runs Guiding Star, an organization that helps recovering addicts, said such determination was most often fleeting. At least 98 percent of those who leave the drug detention system relapse within a few years, he said.
Zhang knows something about that. His own addiction to heroin has landed him in detox centers and labor camps six times since the mid-1990s.
“What the government doesn’t realize is that this is a disease that needs to be treated, not punished,” said Zhang, 42, a tattooed man who speaks in a growl.
In some ways, he said, the stigma of addiction is as crippling as the lure of the next high. Those arrested for drug offenses are branded addicts on their national identification cards, which makes applying for jobs and welfare benefits acts of futility. And because local police are automatically notified when former offenders check into hotels, traveling often involves impromptu urine tests and the possibility of humiliation in front of colleagues.
“In China, to be a drug addict is to be an enemy of the government,” Zhang said.
Still, he and other drug treatment workers are quick to acknowledge the progress that China has made in recent years. There are now eight methadone clinics in Beijing, the capital, serving 2,000 people, and more than 1,000 needle-exchange programs have opened across the country since 2004.
Yu Jingtao, whose organization, Beijing Harm Reduction Group, distributes 30,000 clean needles a month, said the government was slowly moving toward the drug treatment model common in much of the developed world. “We’re just caught in a transition period,” said Yu, a recovering addict. “Transition periods are never very pretty.”