As one Chinese ministry helps addicts, another arrests them

Health officials, police at odds over heroin cases

July 31, 2005|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KUNMING, China - By the time they came to this city's first methadone clinic last month, Jin Yongxiang and his wife were already both lucky and unlucky: They were lucky never to have contracted HIV, but they had been arrested several times for their heroin habit.

Determined finally to break their addiction, they stepped into the methadone clinic, but few of their friends had the courage to follow them into the government's care.

Jin understands why, for even as the Ministry of Health sought to help him through the voluntary program, a much more powerful arm of the state, the Ministry of Public Security, arrested his wife.

On June 26, the United Nations' international anti-drug day, Gao Jin happened to walk into her police precinct for a routine bureaucratic chore. It was an unfortunate coincidence. The date is rigorously observed in China with drug arrests, cash bonuses for police who meet arrest quotas, and propaganda about drug crackdowns.

Gao was swept up in the dragnet. Recognized as a local addict, police sent her for a urine test, which came up positive, and took her into custody, Jin said.

Her government-issued methadone treatment card, which she thought would protect her from arrest, turned out to be useless.

China is waking up to its AIDS problem after years of treating it literally as a state secret, but only part of the government is attempting to solve it. The Ministry of Health, shaken up at the top after its failed cover-up of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2003, has sought since then to raise HIV awareness, offer clean needles to addicts and promote the use of condoms.

Now the ministry is forging ahead with voluntary methadone clinics, opening eight last year and up to 100 by the end of this year.

Progressive campaign

It is a remarkably progressive campaign for China, but it places the interests of the traditionally weak Health Ministry at odds with those of the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the nation's police. Drug arrests have long been a top priority of the ministry, which promotes frequent crackdowns that play well in the state news media.

"When we got this treatment card, the doctors told us if we have this card, no one can arrest us because we are in treatment," Jin said. His wife, as a third-time offender, now almost certainly faces two years in a labor camp. "We wonder, what's the power of this card?"

"The police think that the drug users along with the drug traffickers are all criminals, that we should arrest them all," said Zhang Ke, a doctor serving on a national AIDS council that advises the health ministry. "But to us medical professionals, we think that we should have an open channel for drug addicts to return to society."

This fundamental conflict is playing out in cities around the country, as health officials and nongovernmental organizations increasingly offer HIV prevention or treatment help to addicts, while police operating with a different agenda continue to make arrests - in at least some cases breaking up counseling and treatment sessions to do so, human rights activists and Chinese experts say.

Pressure for arrests

But even where police are officially cooperating with health officials, as is supposed to be the case with methadone clinics, the public security ministry's overriding goal is to continue making arrests, and the addicts know it.

Two days before the city's first methadone clinic opened, in May, the Kunming police held a news conference reiterating their tough stand on addicts. On June 26, after two more clinics had opened in Kunming and more had opened in other cities, the official New China News Service announced another "big roundup" of addicts for forced rehabilitation.

Kunming's three clinics have a total of about 120 clients, only 20 percent of what they can handle. By comparison, the police arrest thousands of addicts a month - 9,910 through the first four months of this year - and force thousands more underground or out of the city when authorities unleash "strike-hard" campaigns.

"A lot more people would like to participate in this program," said Zhang Xiao, 27, who is in the methadone program with her brother. "But because of this conflicted situation, a lot of people are worried about coming to this kind of program."

The Kunming police said they are merely doing what the law calls for - arresting drug users.

"If the person's urine tests negative, we will not arrest him. If the urine test comes up positive, we will definitely send the person to mandatory rehabilitation," said Officer Long Dingquan, director of a drug-fighting division of the Kunming Public Security Bureau, in a telephone interview. "There are some people who are participating in the methadone program just in name but are actually using drugs."

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