SHANGHAI – As of March, China had more than 2.14 million registered drug users, according to China’s Ministry of Public Security. That’s a remarkable admission from the usually secretive government.
It’s also a pragmatic acknowledgment of how ubiquitous and easy-to-obtain drugs have become in China. Dealers sell from street corners, from behind kebab stands, even — I’ve seen it myself — from a cart selling helium balloons.
Meanwhile, for those who prefer a less public buying experience, home delivery of just about any kind of illegal substance is typically just a click, text message, call or — depending on where one lives — shout out the window away.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when Jaycee Chan, the only son of kung-fu superstar Jackie Chan, and Taiwanese actor and singer Kai Ko (a far bigger celebrity in Asia) were arrested in Beijing earlier this month for drug possession. Nevertheless, the story rapidly blossomed into one of the biggest scandals of the year on Chinese social media.
Chan and Ko were victims of bad luck, bad timing and somebody who knew full well they were getting high. (The bust took place in Jaycee’s home.)
More important, though, they have become convenient and high-profile fodder for China’s ongoing anti-drug crusade. The campaign, which has netted a slew of other celebrities since the beginning of the year, isn’t restricted to the famous.
According to state media, since January, “more than 7,800 people have been detained for taking drugs in Beijing.” That’s a 72 percent year-on-year increase in arrests.
For President Xi Jinping, who sometimes appears to govern by crackdown, drugs are a natural target. Since taking office in 2012, the Chinese leader has become a moralizing force unlike any in decades. His various crusades have been designed not just to eliminate waste and intimidate wrongdoers, but to restore a sense of public rectitude.
His 2012 “Clean Your Plate Campaign,” whereby Chinese — especially officials with expense accounts — were encouraged to stop wasting food, was targeted at profligacy with the public purse. His anti-corruption campaign aims both to eliminate political enemies and to reestablish the moral authority of the Communist Party.
Rampant drug use by privileged young celebrities and their connected friends (often the sons and daughters of top Party officials) is an affront to Xi’s sense of public righteousness.
The moralizing impulse behind these various campaigns hasn’t always been noticed outside the mainland. It comes out most clearly in the punishments that Xi and his lieutenants have chosen to employ — in particular, the public confession. It’s an old Communist Party tool, perfected during the Cultural Revolution (when confessions were often made before live audiences). Then, as now, confessions debase and make an example of public figures that have run afoul of party-mandated morality (and, when it’s relevant, the law).
The underlying theory is simple: If a celebrity or high official can be made to bend to the state’s moral code, you can, too. Sure enough, over the last few days, Chinese viewers have gotten to watch Jaycee Chan give police a guided tour to his 100 grams of pot, and to hear Kai Ko confess to a rapt nation: “I am the worst example and a bad influence.”
Will this kind of spectacle dissuade China’s potheads from taking their next toke? That’s debatable.
Regardless, the highly publicized arrests and confessions are playing an important propaganda role, contrasting Xi’s administration from the supposedly more permissive governments that preceded it.
The next time he needs to purge an official linked to one of those previous regimes, Xi can at least do so from the moral high ground that he’s worked so diligently to establish.
Adam Minter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributor to Bloomberg View.