Ketamine and the Return of the Party-State

Yiran Ding/Shanghai

The riot cops marched in and arranged themselves around the dance floor in a well-practiced formation. As they approached me and my friends, I could feel my pulse quicken. The police came to a halt within spitting distance, taking in the entire scene. I knew they had a clear view of the mounds of ketamine on the table in front of me.

It wasn’t mine, I swear. But I didn’t want to have to explain that while sitting in a tiger chair at a Public Security Bureau detention center. Fortunately, it never came to that: they glanced around and then walked out. The man across the table from me went back to work dividing lines with his Agricultural Bank of China debit card. The six-fingered Uzbek dancer got back up on the bar and undressed to a Eurobeat remix of a Mongolian folk song. Faces bent to the table.

I saw this scene replayed across China many times in the early 2000s, from provincial capitals to backwater towns. The nightlife ran on ketamine. If it wasn’t being openly displayed on club tables beside the fruit platters and bottle service jugs of Qoo and Red Label, then it was cut into neat lines and stashed in an ashtray. It appeared in Qzone photo albums, staged beside pink straws and stacks of red hundred-yuan notes.

Like the first specks of black mold on the drywall, the synthetic drug epidemic was a minor sign of deeper, more dangerous rot. It demonstrated that the Chinese party-state was losing its grip in the wake of the aggressive restructuring that had unleashed the private sector. It was unwilling or unable to fight petty vice, breaking with the policy of crushing social chaos through political campaigns.

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.

China’s Ketamine Import Market

Ketamine’s arrival in 1970s China—as medicine, not as a vice—dovetails with the story of the ideological shift that would later lead to its widespread abuse. If not for the replacement of Maoist self-sufficiency with Dengist pragmatism, it might never have made it into the Chinese pharmacopeia.

Ketamine was an American invention. In the late 1950s, the venerable drug maker Parke, Davis & Co. tasked the Departments of Pharmacology and Anesthesiology at the University of Michigan Medical Center with developing inexpensive and reliable alternatives to narcotics derived from the opium poppy. The first product of those efforts had been phencyclidine, which was marketed under the trade names Sernyl and Sernylan but more commonly known as PCP. Ketamine was its cousin, intended to deliver analgesic effects without turning people violent, as PCP sometimes did in human tests. The drug was patented by Parke, Davis & Co. in 1966 and approved by the FDA under the trade name Ketalar in 1970.

It spread quickly through the Global South, since it was valuable emergency medicine in settings with undeveloped medical infrastructure. It was also an ideal battlefield anesthetic. It was easy to train people to administer an intramuscular injection of ketamine. Unlike with opioids, it was hard to accidentally kill a patient by suppressing their breathing. It provided the type of superficial anesthesia that worked when you needed to keep someone moving. PCP and ketamine work in similar ways: instead of numbing the body as an opiate would, they disconnect the subject from their body and environment.

In China, however, there was an ideological and pragmatic push to discover indigenous plants and techniques that could supplement the inelegant solutions provided by ether and chloroform. Research efforts focused more on acupuncture anesthesia than narcotics. Major anesthesiologists, such as the patriotic returnees Shang Deyan and Xie Rong, spent most of the Maoist era caught up in revolutionary criticism. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that key anesthesiologists returned to work.

The People’s Liberation Army eventually called for ketamine production. Up until then, if a soldier needed a slug pulled out of his gut in Korea or got horribly burned in a Soviet mortar attack in Heilongjiang, there wasn’t much to do for them, except shooting them up with whatever morphine was on hand. An unpublished internal document by Xie Rong shows that the People’s Liberation Army emphasized ketamine as a key element in “battle preparedness.” In 1979, when the PLA charged across the Vietnamese border to punish the Lê Duẩn for giving Pol Pot the boot, ketamine was finally in their arsenal. The many reports in People’s Military Surgeon on the use of ketamine for battlefield anesthesia through the 1980s prove its efficacy—and also show that there was a lot of the stuff floating around.

The fact that ketamine did not slip from the medkit to the streets is a testament to the control the party-state had over its charges—and also perhaps the limited appeal of ketamine to anyone that had access to morphine. The idea of abusing ketamine was introduced from the outside world.

Shortly after ketamine got FDA approval, recreational drug users in San Francisco and Los Angeles immediately got their hands on it and sold it as a powder variously called K, 1980 Acid, and Special LA Coke. While working-class kids used PCP to replace barbiturates and heroin, ketamine attracted the same young, white middle-class Americans that were taking LSD.

In the late 1970s, leaders in the psychedelic movement trumpeted ketamine as its future. When Western dropouts hit Goa, they discovered that Indian pharmaceutical plants were turning the stuff out in bulk. It became a staple on the Hippie Trail, eventually carried as far as Hong Kong.

By 1999, the drug had exploded in popularity in Hong Kong itself, first with expatriate partiers returning from Goa with medical-grade ketamine diverted from pharmaceutical manufacturers in the Indian state of Maharashtra, then with locals that used it as a cheap alternative or chaser for MDMA or methamphetamine. By 2006, nearly three-quarters of self-reported drug users in Hong Kong claimed to have used ketamine.

With the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen increasingly porous after the 1997 handover, it wasn’t long before ketamine made the leap, too. The Chinese government’s Annual Report on Drug Control started claiming seizures of ketamine by the ton in 2003, and it managed to beat heroin seizure numbers in 2007 and 2008.

Ketamine poured into the fresh market provided by hundreds of millions of migrant workers heading south to labor in the post-WTO factory of the world. The legal monthly minimum wage in Shenzhen circa 2000 was $547 USD, $450 USD in Guangdong, and $420 USD in Fujian. But most workers were making significantly less than that—even as low as $150 USD a month. A night at a club could cost most of a month’s salary, but a gram of ketamine was only around $6-18 USD.

Throughout the 1990s, hundreds of millions of workers were tossed out of jobs, or shuffled into the ill-defined category of xiagang: still on the employment rolls and receiving certain social security benefits from their former work unit, but with no work assigned and no wages. The workers in the xiagang category in the 1990s were generally women. Employer preferences in the hiring of migrant workers led to a workforce dominated by unmarried young women. As a result, one factor that gave ketamine a boost was that it gave these women a break from the strict gender codes around drinking booze.

A drug like ketamine might have felt taboo, but migrant workers in China lived lives that their parents couldn’t have dreamed of: they were more mobile, of course, but they also drank more and had more premarital sex. There’s a reason that syphilis—declared extinct in the People’s Republic—saw a rapid resurgence.

It wasn’t long before ketamine was carried out of the coastal manufacturing centers as workers moved around.

The best way to track the progress of the drug is through public security sector journals. In 2003, two workers attached to a Public Security Bureau compulsory drug rehabilitation lock-up in the city of Wenzhou suggested that ketamine had recently jumped from the Pearl River Delta to the Yangtze River Delta. In 2005, a magazine published by the General Administration of Customs talked about ketamine being distributed in the mail from Fujian. The journal of Henan’s Public Security Bureau noted its presence in dance halls in Zhengzhou a year later. By 2009, there were notes in a legal newsletter about discovering ketamine as far afield as Lhasa in Tibet.

The Party’s Red-Black Nexus

By the time ketamine started trickling across the border, the state’s grip had loosened to such an extent that it could no longer fight against vice.

The compromises reached between reformist and conservative factions in the 1980s had resulted in the ‘90s in a regime of uneven reform, with the economy split between dynamic coastal growth in the Special Economic Zones and a crumbling Maoist framework everywhere else.

Deng Xiaoping made this growth his clear priority, downplaying political stability and ideological work as he stated that the “crucial factor” was growing the economy: “Why do the people support us? Because over the last ten years, our economy has been developing and developing visibly.” Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents successively mutated China’s official Marxist ideology, which paved the way for private entrepreneurs to join the Communist Party. The state stepped aside for the private sector. Workers, meanwhile, were set free to sink or swim.

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.

The number of migrant workers in this floating population was in the tens of millions in the 1980s, but grew to include hundreds of millions by the 2000s. These hundreds of millions of workers, most of them in their twenties or thirties, were suddenly thousands of miles from home, free of the supervision of their families and work units, and forming new social networks.

But these reforms didn’t just inflate the demand side of the drug market. Smart operators could take advantage of these widespread privatizations to expand their capital base for production too. In one infamous case, a crew of Hong Kong gangsters maneuvered to get a struggling state-owned factory called Taiyuan Pharmaceutical to make their ketamine for them.

Taiyuan Pharmaceutical was opened as one of the 156 key projects of the First Five-Year Plan, the exact copy of a factory in Shijiazhuang. The Taiyuan factory made sulfonamide antibiotics, while the Shijiazhuang factory made penicillin. Neither had any competition, testaments to the redundancy-reducing efficiency drives of central planning. In 1979, when Deng sent PLA infantry and tanks over the Vietnamese border, chemists from Beijing and Shanghai arrived en masse in Taiyuan to convert some of the factory’s workshops to produce ketamine. But once hostilities ended, so did the ketamine market. Antibiotics didn’t prove much of a cash cow, so the operation began to flounder.

The Shanxi government struggled to find a buyer for the forty-year-old pharmaceutical plant in the northwestern hinterland; a merger with the more successful Shijiazhuang operation went nowhere. When a Hong Kong gangster arrived in 2002 to order several tons of ketamine—paid for with cash—nobody spent much time scrutinizing the deal.

If the ketamine hadn’t been intercepted by Guangdong police on its way to Hong Kong, it’s likely that nobody would have raised the alarm until much later. Even the pharmaceutical firms that were doing well didn’t have much objection to selling ketamine. Only five firms had a license to produce it. But in 2003, authorities carried out an investigation into how a pair of drug dealers got their hands on 150 kilograms of ketamine and determined that illicit manufacturing took place at 35 pharmaceutical firms in eight provinces.

The drug trade compromised not only these former jewels of the command economy, but even the party leadership and bureaucracy.

With the party-state in retreat, alternatives arose. One of them was the red-black nexus, a coalition of bureaucrats and gangsters. The bureaucrats and party officials provided the criminals with legitimacy and organizational support, while the criminals offered the politicians a source of income that could be kicked up to the next level. Private enterprises often benefited from the patronage and protection of the first two categories, adding a third element to that nexus. As long as the money kept coming, higher levels tended to be uninterested in how it was generated.

They also turned a blind eye to practices like land seizures, that filled the coffers of many local governments. Municipalities expropriated state-owned land from residents, sometimes with the help of organized crime muscle, offering it up for sale to private investors. These seizures only became an issue when riots over them made the news.

This contributed to a general atmosphere of social chaos, and it directly assisted in allowing ketamine to be manufactured inside China, instead of being imported through Hong Kong.

One example was Boshe, a village in Guangdong in which the party-state was almost completely absent by the early 2000s, having delegated authority to a local elite organized through the red-black nexus. Close to a third of Boshe residents were involved in the drug trade, all operating under the direction of Cai Dongjia, a local clan patriarch who had become party secretary of Boshe and representative in the Shanwei Municipal People’s Congress. The money he earned through manufacturing ketamine and methamphetamine, as well as by acting as a clearinghouse for shipments of drugs toward Hong Kong, smoothed Cai Dongjia’s climb up the political ladder. His position in the party allowed him to traffic even more dope in turn.

The Return of the State

When I describe club tables covered in powder to anyone too young to have been in nightclubs in the 2000s, they’re a little stunned. By the 2010s, ketamine had mostly disappeared.

It disappeared from clubs. It was scarce in karaoke boxes. I still saw it sometimes—snorted by two sculptors during a screening of Beetlejuice at an art space in Tianhe sometime in 2013, offered for sale at Catwalk in Yuexiu around 2014, and flaunted by some girls at a bar in Datong in 2015. But it was nothing like back in the day.

A 2014 study of Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai’s water treatment plants searched for drugs and their metabolites in wastewater. It discovered a sharp decline in ketamine use, with significant prevalence only in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. An even wider sewage study involving eighteen cities concluded that ketamine use was in decline. A team from Renmin University in Beijing, checking for traces of ketamine and metabolites in the wastewater of several cities, found a 67% decrease in ketamine usage in 2015 alone. The China National Narcotics Control Commission reported a steep decline in busts of “production dens.”

The clandestine manufacture of ketamine that began toward the beginning of the 2010s was itself a sign of a problem with supply since it seemed to suggest that there was not a significant amount of pharmaceutical ketamine being diverted. The authorities were seizing more ketamine, but much of it was being interdicted at border crossings, rather than seized from manufacturers in the country. The increase in seizures of ketamine at laboratories in Myanmar and Vietnam also pointed to victory over the ketamine scourge.

There were external factors involved in this drought, as we can see from the global ketamine shortage of 2014, directly linked to changes to the drug’s legal status in India. But the real reason for the internal shift in China is that the years of chaos came to an end with the return of the state under Xi Jinping. Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 Southern Tour and WTO accession in 2001 are signposts on the road to state retreat; the first term of Xi Jinping as General Secretary marked the initial signs of the party-state’s return.

In the years leading up to 1992, conservatives and reformers publicly struggled to decide the nation’s direction. In the years leading up to 2001, Jiang Zemin, Zhu Rongji, and other members of the Shanghai Clique sought to beat back factional rivals and theoretical criticism from figures like Deng Liqun, who advocated for a more conservative turn.

Similarly, the years leading up to 2012 and the elevation of Xi Jinping were a contentious period: Hu Jintao, general secretary from 2002 to 2012, had pushed a populist message about reducing runaway postsocialist inequality and improving grassroots democracy. But he was undermined by the continued influence of Jiang Zemin’s henchmen in the Shanghai Clique. Years of decentralization in party power and the hollowing out of state capacity further thwarted his efforts, making it hard to contain the unprecedented unrest over land seizures, ethnic strife in Tibet and Xinjiang, and increasingly organized liberal dissent.

Jiang Shigong, writing about the transitional period between Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, describes “political forces, inside the party and out, that hoped to pit the Deng Xiaoping era”—state retreat, marketization, depoliticization—“against the Mao Zedong era”—unimaginable state power under personalized leadership. Jiang accused these political forces of hoping “to use the Reform and Opening line created by Deng Xiaoping to negate the socialist system established during the Mao Zedong era, and that [the reformists] advocated undertaking subversive reforms of the political system…”

The party under Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao had promised the moon and failed to deliver much. They were in the cockpit, but none of the controls actually worked. Those unnamed advocates that Jiang Shigong describes as pushing political reforms might have hoped to maintain power and wealth through a further weakening of the party-state. Xi Jinping went in another direction: he wanted to restore the link between party and state, the capabilities of the renewed party-state monolith, and the ability of central leadership to call the shots.

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.

These drug war methods broke with those used by Hu Jintao a few years prior. In the late 2000s, government authorities distributed 2.4 million pocketbooks on illicit drugs in Shanghai, built a thousand “anti-drug education centers” in the city of Maoming, aired 80 anti-drug TV specials and commercials, published 10 special anti-drug editions of provincial newspapers, and launched an anti-drug awareness week on state broadcaster CCTV. By comparison, Xi Jinping’s drug crackdown looked more like the 1983 Strike Hard campaign, when the conservatives lashed out at both the nebulous concepts of spiritual pollution and bourgeois liberalism, as well as street crime and public dancing.

Cai Dongjia, the corrupt local clan leader and party secretary of Boshe, got a bullet in the head. Boshe, formerly a hive of the drug trade, became a tourist site; a canny entrepreneur took advantage of the area’s expertise in chemistry and set up an herbal medicine operation.

Xi and his deputies tweaked the role that economic growth played as a key source of legitimacy. China’s growth was not to be merely about GDP numbers, but was leading toward an ideal of common prosperity. The most notable tweaks perhaps came from Wang Huning, a key architect of Hu Jintao’s populist message and a Politburo Standing Committee member since 2017.

Xi’s reforms didn’t bring firms back under complete state ownership. After more than four decades since Reform and Opening Up, and two decades on from the restructuring ordered before WTO accession, that move would have been unfeasible and undesirable to top decision-makers like Wang Huning and Wang Yang. Instead, decision-making at state-owned and private enterprises—and at the various combinations thereof—was put back in the hands of the Communist Party. In the wake of the Nineteenth National Party Congress in 2017, the reformers stepped up the presence and power of Communist Party branches in enterprises and tasked them with ensuring “social responsibility.” The fact that this prompted panicked articles at The Wall Street Journal about Xi Jinping bringing private enterprise to heel could be a sign of its effectiveness.

Looking back at Taiyuan Pharmaceutical, it seems unlikely that a similar disaster like gangsters getting a state-owned factory to produce ketamine for them could be repeated in the face of now-increased party power. Reforming the pharmaceutical system is a work in progress, which involves setting aside state money to increase research and development budgets, but the days of crumbling state-run factories churning out ketamine are over.

Taming the private sector involved decreasing the floating population. It was the newly unmoored workers who consumed the ketamine that first flowed into the Pearl River Delta and who then carried it around the country.

A massive floating population was one of the key contributors to the chaos of the years after the 1992 Southern Tour. Hundreds of millions found themselves disconnected from their hometowns by geography and from their adopted communities by the lack of a path to legal residency in the city. This contributed significantly to crime: even if the police statistics from China are sometimes unreliable, tending to undercount offenses by migrant workers without legal status, special economic zones were known for high crime rates.

The financial crisis of 2008 pushed workers inland from the coasts. A state initiative for “westward relocation of investment” accelerated the process. By the 2010s, the proportion of migrant workers going to the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta had begun to fall. By 2018, 74% of all migrant workers were employed in their home province—and 40% of those in their own region—leaving a mere 26% to seek jobs beyond provincial borders. By 2020, the number of migrant workers—both long- and short-distance migrants—was falling.

The reform of the residency registration system helps direct migrant workers toward smaller centers, but also gives them a path to settle down in booming coastal cities. Reforms had been hamstrung for years by the power of local party leaders and bureaucrats to make decisions on controlling their own populations. Xi’s reform puts control more firmly in the hands of the central leadership.

The Future of National Rejuvenation

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang have transformed China over the past decade. The drive to tamp down on the chaos of the post-1992 years by returning the party-state to power is visible most concretely in the re-centralization of power, but its new ideological underpinning has been just as important.

Think of ketamine as the appearance of Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions in a patient with HIV: an opportunistic cancer that is one of the symptoms of the chaos. You can blast the lesions with radiation, but what you really need is powerful antiretrovirals to shut down the root cause: the virus replicating in the body. In this case, the ideological root-cause solution is restoring the moral legitimacy and grassroots political power of the party-state.

Neo-Maoist Zhang Hongliang has written about what he calls the ethical decline of post-socialist China: “The most prominent features of the period between 1981 and present is the stunning accumulation of wealth and the shocking rate of moral degradation.” This is suspiciously non-Marxist–Leninist-Maoist language for Zhang Hongliang to be using, but he is actually drawing on the party’s own ideas. Xi Jinping’s direction for the nation is one in which the party-state will enforce a new moral age.

Morality and other less tangible qualities like cultural confidence, or the Core Socialist Values are part of how Xi Jinping has tamed the nation. The idea of “spiritual civilization”—the opposite of “material civilization”—is a concept that was used by leaders like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but mostly as an ineffective counterbalance to the glory of getting rich. With legitimacy uncoupled from pure economic growth, it can begin to mean something.

Ketamine was one of many symptoms of the chaotic environment that was unleashed by the retreat of the party-state in the 1990s and 2000s. The story of how Xi cleaned it up reveals the much larger shifts at work.

The assault on corruption, crime, and drugs, and the establishment of the National Security Commission signaled that the Communist Party was retaking its leading role. Likewise, the theoretical updates of Xi Jinping Thought about the party-state’s role in Chinese society are part of the updated constitution. That update combines the humane reformism of Wang Huning and Wang Yang with a new moral code to replace the growth obsession of the 1990s and 2000s.

It remains to be seen how long the Communist Party and Chinese state under Xi Jinping can hold out and resist the lure of financialization of the economy. But as China gets richer and its factional lines get drawn across social battles instead of economic ones, we can expect rhetoric about moral regeneration to become more potent. The party’s turn towards encouraging family and child-rearing might well be the first sign of things to come. When all your political capital has been invested in the narrative of national rejuvenation, there’s no easy way out when the low-hanging fruits of the market start to run low.

Dylan Levi King is a Tokyo-based translator of modern Chinese literature and a writer on contemporary online culture. You can follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking.