China’s Reefer Madness Is Sweeping Up Foreigners

Legal marijuana abroad is playing into xenophobia at home.

Policemen prepare to incinerate drugs at a cement plant on June 19, 2011 in Beijing, China.
Policemen prepare to incinerate drugs at a cement plant on June 19, 2011 in Beijing, China. VCG/VCG via Getty Images

It was a unique dilemma for Beijing’s propagandists. The discovery that cannabis smoking may have originated in western China some 2,500 years ago would typically have been seized upon as irrefutable evidence of the country’s civilizational reach, sovereignty, and archaeological prowess. But China’s officials are always skittish about anything to do with sex or drugs—and so the triumphant revelation of yet another historical first passed like a tumbleweed through the corridors of its state media.

Instead, lawmakers are oddly preoccupied with how to handle the herb’s shifting status abroad as a growing number of Western countries relax laws on marijuana, revising their attitudes even as Beijing ramps up the rhetoric against drugs, foreigners, and the outside world.

Government worries have mixed with parental concerns, especially from an upper-middle class with children overseas. Canada’s legalization of recreational marijuana, which went into effect in October 2018, triggered an industry of condemnations on WeChat, the ubiquitous, heavily regulated yet wildly rumor-mongering messaging app on which many mainland and diaspora Chinese conduct all conversation. WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram, Messenger, and all other encrypted apps are blocked in China, so imagine aging parents sharing links on a Facebook run by the Communist Party.

One piece of chum that set the waters of the app churning was titled “You Can’t Imagine How Canada’s Cannabis Legalization Will Ruin Millions of Chinese People’s Lives!” a viral scare story warning that Canada’s “dangerous foods” now include a vast array of sweet edibles—if you consume them, “when you return home … stone-cold handcuffs are waiting for you!” (The same week, a friend asked if it was true that Queen Elizabeth II had died—his mother had definitely heard it on WeChat.)

This attack of the online vapors coincides with a renewed anti-mafia campaign, known as saohei (“sweeping the black”)—a performative burst of policing, often used to settle scores and purge rivals, that’s practically a Communist Party institution.

The war on nightlife hit Shanghai in June, when bars and clubs obligingly shut en masse “until further notice.” In Beijing, though, there’s barely any vice left to crack down on—a prolonged assault on street life has purged the city of both its supposedly unsightly dive bars and interesting demimonde, leaving a diminished capital. But the saohei campaign seems particularly aimless in China’s third-tier hinterland, where hedonists would be lucky to score a properly mixed drink, let alone artisanal weed.

In Changzhou, a city so nondescript even tourism officials admitted to me it had “no famous rivers and mountains or historical landmarks,” bars closed early throughout June. In another city, just two hours away from Shanghai, “Everything has been shut down,” a local friend told me. “The ones that have been allowed to stay open have a cop stationed outside permanently.”

China has a whole host of drug issues—meth villages, ketamine addiction, and heroin trafficking among them—but marijuana is hardly one. Yet the notion of Western “cannabis culture,” with its Prohibition-style images of innocent international students beguiled into reefer madness on foreign campuses, is catnip to credulous middle-class parents, feeding easily into the party’s daily narrative of an unruly and predatory world that exists exclusively outside China’s borders, and from which its citizens must be constantly sheltered.

In June, deputy director of narcotics control Liu Yuejin publicly denounced marijuana legalization as a “new threat to China,” claiming domestic usage had grown by over 25 percent in 2018. But the scale of the marijuana menace—an estimated 24,000 users, according to Liu, out of a population of 1.4 billion—reflects Beijing’s wobbly logic, in which Chinese society is besieged with threats from afar that the government has entirely under control. China doesn’t have a drug problem, the narrative pleads; foreigners do.

Earlier this month, China Youth Daily—the hipster arm of Beijing’s state media—ran parts of Liu’s speech, highlighted various low-key dealers busted for slinging to students, and warned readers about so-called friends who “create a ‘cannabis culture’ that emphasizes hedonism and seeming cool. Those who align themselves with the group don’t think smoking weed is an embarrassing activity.” The article, translated by SupChina and full of awkward admonishments about “weed circles” that “unintentionally facilitate the spread of ‘cannabis culture’ like contagious viruses,” should not be taken lightly, though.

“Some people will argue that they are foreigners so can apply foreign laws that ‘green light’ smoking marijuana,” the writer observed. “They say they are not subject to Chinese law on the issue of smoking marijuana.” Any imagined immunity no longer exists, especially for those smoking while American. That can become especially tricky for anyone who lights up a joint legally at home, but then gets swept up in China’s frequent urine tests on foreigners for drugs.

Last year, Beijing’s food and beverage scene was hit with a wave of raids on foreign owners and bar staff. Those who survived the cull described officers arriving at homes in the middle of the night, demanding urine tests, then detaining and expelling anybody who failed the tests from the country without further notice. Popular businesses, including a smoothie bar and cafe, were left ownerless overnight, but the dramatic deportations weren’t publicized for fear of further attention in the expat community.

That’s not a luxury afforded to people like Lance, a Nigerian student yanked out of class and thrown into an interrogation room by Beijing police, after failing a urine test in March. African staff and students at Chinese schools are tested weekly for drugs, a Ghanaian kindergarten teacher told me: “Because we’re black,” she shrugged. “The white guys get tested every couple of months.” Lance (a pseudonym) said he was subjected to hours of hostile interrogation.

Those who’ve been detained for cannabis describe a panopticon of provincial policing—with reams of active WeChat messages and group chats being monitored mid-interrogation, a la Minority Report—that’s startling in both its scale and lack of supervision. Tencent’s denial that it stored WeChat data that could be handed over to Chinese authorities on demand was always comic; that police are using these limitless powers to roust tokers and smash teenage after-parties verges on absurd.

Yet Lance displayed bruises, including an angry swelling where he said he’d been forcibly injected with an unknown substance during the interrogation, and only laughed about the Belt and Road Initiative, a signature policy that helps Beijing funnel excess capacity to client states, which it frames as “win-win” co-operation. African countries considered “old friends” are typically treated worse, he said, with their citizens viewed as economic dependents whose leaders are too corrupt or compromised to raise objections. Lance’s ordeal would never be meted out to white foreigners like me, he said: “It would be all over the blogs.”

Eventually, Lance’s friends paid around 40,000 RMB, nearly $6,000, in cash to secure his release. China doesn’t care that cannabis use probably evolved from obscure rites performed on some remote Tibetan plateau, nor that its popularity evolved along Silk Road routes that Beijing’s Belt and Road aspires to revitalize—and Chinese cops don’t really fret about whether a few locals enjoy the odd puff.

What the cannabis campaign does indicate, though, is a determination to frame alternative lifestyles as foreign threats and uphold ahistorical puritanism as Chinese “tradition”—while skimming cash on the side. In other words, a thoroughly communist crackdown.



Robert Foyle Hunwick is a UK -based writer and China consultant. His forthcoming book on vice, crime and corruption in New China will be published by I.B.Tauris