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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Down from the Mountains, Out of Time: Addiction, Reform and China's Heroin Generation

  • Author(s): Bartlett, Nicholas Allyn
  • Advisor(s): Adams, Vincanne
  • et al.

In the late 1980s many young workers in Gejiu left government jobs to seek their fortunes in a newly liberalizing mining industry. Soon after starting private sector careers on the mountainside, this group came into contact with heroin, a drug that had just begun to circulate in this part of southwest China. Today in their late 30s and 40s, many of these one-time entrepreneurs have continued to use the opiate off and on for more than twenty years. Though deeply pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming their addiction, this group's marginalization seems less the product of a dependency on a pharmacological substance than a lived relation to a changing world.

This dissertation breaks with biomedical researchers who see addiction as a chronic disease of the brain and social scientists who interpret illicit drug use as the mark of a sub-culture or a symptom of structural inequality. Instead, I argue the affliction of the men and women I call "China's Heroin Generation" must be understood through their shared historical trajectory. Their passage from young children living in Maoist China to private sector pioneers to labor center students to unemployed idlers has given members of this generation common ways of experiencing and reflecting on their condition.

Attention to their past illuminates common ways that members of the Heroin Generation experience the present. Consumption of heroin was one of many practices associated with the existential challenges and bodily risks of entering adulthood in the midst of a tumultuous mining boom. As new state policies continued to transform Gejiu, these men and women found that their daring dispositions no longer enabled economically productive activity. Today, this group turns to early life memories and tales of the Maoist past to make sense of the destructive cycles that characterize their lives and the growing feeling that they have been left behind. Their condition of addiction is thus best understood as "fading"--from the earning potential of their early careers, from participation in China's turbulent development, and from the sense of connectedness they feel with other heroin users as their community shrinks with the passing of time.

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