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When China went ketamine crazy

A Chinese ketamine smuggler under arrest in Taiwan. Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images

China has a difficult relationship with drugs, says Cindy Yu in Chinese Whispers. The country’s “century of humiliation” by the West began in 1839, when the British started using gunboat diplomacy to protect their right to sell opium. The Communist Party drove out the trade 100 years later, helping to legitimise its rule.

But in the late 1990s and early 2000s, ketamine – legally used to tranquillise people (and horses) in medicine – was “all over the place”, says writer Dylan Levi King. Police doing their rounds in nightclubs would see tables covered with the powder, but nod and move on. The wanton drug-taking was a by-product of the permissive, post-Mao era of economic growth: young factory workers who had moved from villages to booming coastal cities needed something to take their minds off 14-hour shifts. Ketamine was particularly popular among women, who are excluded from China’s regimented, male-dominated drinking culture.

That “window of liberalism” has slammed shut: President Xi Jinping’s vision of Chinese power has a stiff moral backbone. Aside from a few clubs in Shanghai, drug-taking in China is virtually non-existent. The fact that police could come in at any moment, lock the door and make everybody pee in a cup puts a dampener on things.

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