Palladium Archive: Ketamine and the Return of the Party State
To understand the return of China’s party-state, look no further than its love affair with ketamine.
Last year, Palladium Correspondent Dylan Levi King came out with a great article on the role that ketamine and other narcotics have played in the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s social reforms. Their controlled or ignored status can be seen as a bellwether that characterizes the regime at any point in its history. For much of the 1990s, for example, economic reforms entailed a depoliticization of private life that also saw restrictions around ketamine use loosened up.
But China has a politically complicated relationship with drug use in a way many other countries don’t:
The Communist Party, after all, had ended the century of humiliation that began with the First Opium War. The reappearance of heroin addicts in Golden Triangle border regions in the 1970s was startling enough, but that phenomenon could be blamed on the chaos across the border. And besides, there was too much lingering, powerful disgust at opiate abuse for it to spread much further. The government handled the rise in crime rates in the 1980s with the vicious Strike Hard campaign that locked up millions, but casual ketamine use in the heartland was allowed to fester.
As Deng Xiaoping completed his 1992 Southern Tour, began reforms in anticipation of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, and sidelined the conservatives inside the Communist Party, economic growth replaced the old sources of party-state legitimacy. Illicit drug eradication stopped being a matter of national liberation and came under the purview of simple law enforcement.
By the time ketamine started to trickle over the border from Hong Kong in the late 1990s, the party-state had already given up on its statist ideology and traditional sources of legitimacy, replacing them with aggressive depoliticization and the prosperity gospel of market success.
In the name of economic growth, the leadership was willing to overlook many things: melamine in baby formula, deadly factory fires, unrest as local governments seized land, and the fentanyl precursors that Chinese traffickers shipped to Mexican cartels. So long as economic growth kept accelerating, it didn’t matter much what the rising young urbanites did on their own time—provided those hobbies stayed safely apolitical.
Many users came from a floating population of the “temporarily unemployed” xiagang, many of whom were women displaced by single migrant workers.
State-owned enterprises tended not to generate profits, so the government often tried to reform or privatize them, or even allow them to go bankrupt. It was laid-off workers from these firms that inflated the ranks of xiagang across China.
The initial focuses of these reforms were underperforming smaller enterprises on the periphery of the economy. But eventually, all except the very largest firms were opened up for sale or lease. By the end of the 1990s, the government had fully or partially privatized the majority of state-owned enterprises. For labor-intensive industrial enterprises, seventy percent were at least partially privatized by 2001.
These state-owned enterprises had offered more than employment and wages to their employees, providing a wide range of social services through their danwei work unit system. These perks included housing and childcare, as well as the unofficial benefits that come from close-knit communities. The danwei system also performed a granular supervisory and disciplinary function: it allowed the state to officially monitor workers and unofficially kept them under the watchful eye of community members that usually shared housing with them.
With political reforms, these workers entered a floating population, unprotected and unmonitored by the state.
But with the arrival of Xi Jinping, restrictions around ketamine and other drugs have returned. You can hardly see them in the clubs like you could as recently as the late 2000’s. Anti-corruption campaigns have targeted many of the cliques responsible for drug production and imports:
Xi’s opponents derided his anti-corruption drive as mere factional warfare. There’s truth to that: he had seen Hu Jintao undermined and knew that it would be impossible to manage the party without taking out the remnants of previous regimes. But the extension of the drive from the “tigers,” like senior leader and Shanghai Clique capo Zhou Yongkang, down to the “flies” helped disrupt the red-black nexus that allowed Cai Dongjia to flourish. Within the space of several years, more than fifty thousand officials and bureaucrats were locked up.
The anti-corruption drive was only one part of a multi-pronged assault. Xi set up the National Security Commission as a new institution to lead it, circumventing any potential challenges or foot-dragging from the bureaucracy.
Xi Jinping and his deputies ran the crackdown on drugs, corruption, and organized crime simultaneously. It was similar to the anti-opium drive of 1949-1952, which took place alongside the land reform, the purging of landlords, consolidation of borders, and the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries. The latter had likewise been aimed at shoring up the leadership’s power; Mao’s loyalists mopped up Nationalists, bandit raiders, and anyone that looked at a PLA man the wrong way.
The number of drug-related arrests and convictions spiked. Local jurisdictions established student anti-drug volunteer teams. This crackdown was as egalitarian as any good Maoist campaign, sweeping up the wealthy and powerful, even throwing Jackie Chan’s son in jail. They went after artists and intellectuals, maintaining an unofficial blacklist of those who got caught with dope. Even the foreigners got shut down, with cops marching into clubs and ordering urine tests.
The crackdown was explicitly political, with state media reporting that it was “primarily aimed at consolidating the [Communist Party] ruling foundation, strengthening political power at the grassroots level and safeguarding lasting peace and stability for the country.” This is especially interesting from a Western perspective: the naked political imperative of the state in its actions is much more taboo in the West, though of course no less present.
It’s often from the fringe that we come to understand the nature of the center, and tracking the status of ketamine through different iterations of CCP social policy is a useful tool for measuring how perceptions of morality, crime, and state interventionism are downstream of current leadership.
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Last week, Managing Editor Ash Milton hosted two authors of a recent article “How Finland’s Green Party Chose Nuclear Power.” They discussed the main split among environmentalists—the “degrowth” and “ecomodern” wings of the movement.
Representing the latter, Tea and Marco talked about the problems with degrowth ideology, how they managed to sway public opinion in Finland, and more speculative topics, like how declining fertility across the world will interact with environmentalist platforms.
Here’s what’s been on the front page lately:
Palladium Podcast 83: Tea Törmänen and Marco Visscher on Ecomodernism. Tea Törmänen and Marco Visscher join Ash Milton to discuss their recent article and the difference between degrowth and ecomodernism.
Why We Need the Center for Strategic Translation by Tanner Greer. The American Governance Foundation is launching a new institution to help American decision makers understand China.
What Everyone Got Wrong on the Brazilian Elections by Avetis Muradyan. Brazil’s 2022 election pitted the pro-Lula Northeast against the Bolsonarist South. The conflict between regions goes back centuries. Brazil’s political future depends on resolving it.
The Mirage of European Sovereignty by Miquel Vila. Count Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi dreamed of a united Europe led by a new spiritual aristocracy. Known today as the EU’s grandfather, his dream is largely forgotten.
I Don’t Want to Be an Internet Person by Ginevra Davis. I went to a rave hosted by the Milady NFT project and met its enigmatic creator. I came away from it fearing the human cost of our internet-obsessed culture.
That’s all for now.