Drug trafficking became rampant in China in the 1980s, when many people saw it as an easy ticket out of poverty. Instead, it sank families deeper into destitution.
As a child, Peng Lisheng had only vague memories of his father.
His dad was not home often, and the few times that he was, he would be startled by loud noises at the front gate and sneak out through the back door of their home in Tongxin, a small county in northwestern China’s Ningxia region.
Peng’s mother told him that his father was doing business in a far off city. It wasn’t until 2001 when he came home from school and found his mother crying that he learned what his father was really doing.
His mother had received a letter from his father in a prison in Yunnan Province, about 1,200 miles away, saying he had been jailed for trafficking heroin.
His father had been working for a drug lord, carrying heroin from Yunnan to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province. He had just boarded the train in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, when police arrested him in possession of more than seven ounces of the drug.
He was sent to 23 years in prison for drug trafficking.
In that moment, Peng became a so-called “drug orphan,” one of many children whose lives have been turned upside-down by the endemic drug trade.
The experience left deep scars on Peng, so much so that he has set up a nonprofit to help others confronting similar trauma.
How a small remote village became hooked on drugs
Tongxin is part of an impoverished strip of land known as Xihaigu, an area that the United Nations described in the 1970s as “the most unfit place for human settlement.” It lies in a mountainous area of central Ningxia, afflicted by drought and poor soil.
When China opened up its economy in the 1980s, many people—illiterate and poverty-stricken—left the area and headed south to Guangzhou in search of a better life. Word spread that there was money to be made in trafficking drugs.
Most people in the village had no idea what heroin was, but they would find out soon. In the 1980s and ’90s, smugglers started bringing the drugs home to Tongxin, and it spread like wildfire.
“During the worst of it, there weren’t even curtains over the doors. The families sold them to buy more drugs.”
Men recruited their family and friends to work in the trade. Some started using and became addicts themselves. “During the worst of it, there weren’t even curtains over the doors,” Peng says. “The families sold them to buy more drugs.”
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He estimates that close to two-thirds of families have a member involved in drugs. One woman he knows has married twice, and both husbands have been locked up for their involvement in the drug trade.
One of Peng’s friends came from a well-off family with a large house, but his father was arrested when he was 17, and the family’s fortunes quickly reduced to nothing.
As for Peng, he dropped out of school when he was 11 to support his mother and three siblings. He hopped on a train to Inner Mongolia to find work and spent the next six years, drifting from city to city working at construction sites and restaurants.
Life was so difficult that one year, Peng had sent all his earnings to his mother and didn’t have enough left over for somewhere to stay.
He slept in the doorway of a bank, wrapping himself in a poster torn from a window.
The government starts cracking down
In recent years, the authorities have fought back.
The local government has cracked down hard on the drug trade, imprisoning many like Peng’s father.
According to most recent available figures from the Tongxin police, there were 1,721 drug traffickers and 746 addicts in 2004. Two hundred traffickers were given the death sentence in a county that then had a population of 325,000.
In 2013, a new local public security bureau chief held a strict campaign against drug use, and life in the town started to improve.
Today, markets are bustling and all appears normal, but there are reminders.
The walls of some houses are painted with red slogans calling on people to “strike hard on drug crime and maintain social order.” Hotel rooms have notices listing a hotline for guests to call to report drug abuse.
Ensuring the cycle of poverty doesn’t continue
Then there are the thousands of children from families with one or both parents locked up for drug trafficking. Peng and a few other young people are trying to remedy the situation.
His nonprofit, Tongxin Aid and Assistance, helps about 50 children—mostly in primary and secondary schools—providing them with clothes, school supplies, and food.
He also organizes trips for children to see their parents in prison, an experience he knows all too well.
Peng was 16 when he visited his father in prison for the first time. The shock of seeing him remains to this day.
“He seemed like a different man from the one I remembered.”
“He seemed like a different man from the one I remembered,” he says. “When he was home, I remembered him as tall and clean. But when I saw him, he was skinny, short, and looked sickly. It was like his skin was only a loose blanket for his bones.”
Peng recalls breaking down in tears but couldn’t bring himself to tell his father about the hardships he endured because of his absence.
Instead, he told him everything was fine at home and gave him some money. His father stressed to his son that he should not deal drugs, and the meeting ended abruptly.
“Because I was one of these children, I know what they need,” Peng says.
His concern is that parental absence will lead teenagers to grow up without proper role models—and they could end up in the drug trade just like their parents.
“The damage may not be healed even in 20 or 30 years,” he says. “Because of drugs, many families fell apart, many children became ‘orphans.’ Some children couldn’t go to school after their parents were imprisoned, some went into drug trafficking or became addicts because there’s no parental supervision.”
Peng is operating on a shoestring budget. When he started Tongxin Aid in 2015, he had more than 20 members. Now, he’s down to five.
But he says he will hang on and has expanded the program to include 20 more children from a nearby town.
He also wants to help women whose husbands are in prison find work or start small businesses so they can make a living and care for their children.
“I don’t dream of changing the scene completely,” he says, “but we are trying to do what we can to influence some children, and they can go to influence others.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.