In the days of the Silk Road, this poor and remote area was a major stop for merchants selling silk, spices and the region's still-famous Pu-erh tea. Today it has become a major stopping place for a more shadowy trade. Located at the base of the Burmese/Laotian Golden Triangle, much of the heroin which makes its way to Southeast Asia passes through Yunnan - and a fair bit of it stays there.
In the late 1980s Dongxiang merchants, descendents of nomadic Mongolian converts to Sunni Islam, began trading with the Miao - a Hmong people related to tribesmen in nearby Laos and Vietnam - and the Dai, whose language and history connected them to Thailand. These hill tribes passed at will over the porous border between China and Myanmar, bringing back opium and heroin which the Dongxiang could sell to traffickers in Hong Kong.
At first Chinese law enforcement, wary of stirring up trouble amongst minorities, turned a blind eye to this trade. So long as the heroin was being exported - and the proper palms were being greased - the flow to the outside world could continue unabated. But then local youths began spending their newly-found wealth on heroin: more than a few became addicted. As one Dongxiang heroin seller said:
Yes, drugs are illegal. But our people don't usually get hooked. It is only the Han who are weak, and we don't care so much about them because they have never cared about us.And with the drug came a new disease. In 1991 397 of China's 410 confirmed AIDS cases were in Yunnan Province: by 2006 Yunnan had 30,000 recorded HIV-positive residents, with experts speculating the actual number could be as 200,000. Many of these cases were contracted through sharing needles: others could be traced to the sex trade which rose up alongside the heroin industry. Meanwhile, the province's drug problem was now spreading throughout the country, as smugglers catered to an increasingly prosperous market. Some enterprising farmers in Yunnan and other southern provinces even returned to old family traditions: today as much as 15% of China's heroin is made from locally grown poppies.
Faced with these threats, Chinese leaders have taken the expected forceful response against traffickers. Those caught with over 50 grams of heroin face a death sentence. (British subject Akmal Shaikh was recently executed after being caught with four kilograms of heroin, despite strong diplomatic pressure from Great Britain). Those caught using drugs are often sent to Orwellian compulsory drug rehabilitation centres where forced labor and beatings are commonplace. Still, heroin use continues to increase along with disposable income, while widespread police and judicial corruption helps ensure the biggest players in the drug game can buy their way out of sentencing.
Despite these problems, Beijing has made comparatively little effort to shut down the Golden Triangle's heroin industry. They may see the major opium producing groups in Myanmar as a counterbalance against the ethnic Burmese military junta, since most have direct ties to China. The Kokang are descendants of Chinese who moved to the area in the 17th century. The Wa once were most famous for their habit of ritual decapitation. But during the 1960s many of the Wa gave up headhunting for Maoism, becoming part of a well-armed (by Beijing) Communist insurgency.