Chinese Whispers

Ketamine in China: has the country got over the opium wars?

23 min listen

In This Episode

It might be an understatement to say that China has a difficult relationship with drugs. Most infamously, the opium wars of the 1800s saw British soldiers fight against the Qing dynasty to protect the British right to sell opium to China. When the Qing lost, it wasn’t just the sobriety of their people that they lost – but a series of ports, concessions and reparations signed away in so-called ‘unequal treaties’. Hong Kong was lost to the British at this point, and it’s where the Chinese mark the start of the century of humiliation.

The memory and trauma of opium addiction is still bound up with national decline in the Chinese conscience.

So imagine my surprise to read about widespread drug use (especially ketamine) in the early 2000s in a recent article by the translator and writer Dylan Levi King. Dylan joins this episode, and he paints an incredible scene of party life at the time:

‘The riot police would do their nightly round of the clubs, walking in and seeing tables covered in ketamine, and basically nodding their head and shuffling out.’


And we talk drugs and politics – what does the popularity of ket say about China’s reform and opening? Has the country got over the opium wars? Dylan tells me about the Maoist purge of opium from the country:

‘Smashing opium and completely driving it out of the country was one of the key sources of legitimacy for the party’


And we discuss how the Chinese see drug abuse as a disease than a crime, and President Xi’s moralistic clampdown on the party scene in the years since.

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