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The Fog of Drugs

Although the use of hashish has been a part of the Uyghur pharmacopoeia for centuries, drugs appear to have become a widespread problem for Uyghurs only in the early 1990s. It was only then that young men in their twenties began dying of overdoses and needle-borne disease. As Ilham Tohti mentioned in 2011, in the intervening decades drugs along with theft, pickpocketing, trafficking and prostitution “have gotten so bad that our entire ethnic group is suddenly perceived as a crime-prone community.” These are issues which Uyghurs discuss among themselves and feel embarrassed about when they are raised among outsiders.

Rumors are a major part of this discussion. Many people point out that the drugs come from the Golden Triangle and tell tales about the way they are trafficked by Hui middleman. They suggest that there is a general conspiracy operating among non-Uyghurs—with the tacit support of the government—to poison young Uyghur men and thus curtail their futures.

These stories are supported by popular media. A famous Uyghur writer, Jalalidin Behram, vividly describes the life paths of Uyghur drug dealers and addicts. In a novel titled Luck and Misfortune he imaginatively retells the “true story” of a businessman-turned-drug dealer from Hotan. He notes how particular groups of Uyghurs sell and use drugs by linking up with networks of outsiders. He describes how they travel to Yun’nan and link up with the grey world of drugs and organized crime in the Golden Triangle.

In fact, the way drug addiction occurs is often less complex and esoteric. Drugs circulate through social networks and become part of everyday practice among many disaffected Uyghur youth. To summarize a recent article on dominant experiences of Uyghur drug use, substances circulate through the social pressure young men exert on other young men to take drugs as a way of proving one’s masculinity. These brotherhood networks form bonds of trust and mutual reliance. Young men who find themselves outside of the tracks to success characterized by first, second and third tier school systems are particularly susceptible to the pressures of unemployment, hopelessness and drug use.

Heroin was the first major “poison” that infected the Uyghur population, but in recent years domestically produced drugs such as methamphetamines and painkillers such as qumaduo or Tramadol are also on the rise.

No matter what the drug – the imagery of pain and suffering that is used in talking about the slow death of drug addiction is consistent. Young men selling their parents’ most valuable possessions—their rugs; failing to “blossom” as adults; men whose moral compass has been altered by a mysterious fog. These are the images appear over and over in Uyghur representations of these new substances.

A music video called “Mysterious Fog” by Abdulla represents these sentiments quite well:

At dusk when my Mom didn’t notice I left the room,
And I dove into the mysterious fog slowly
I became captive to smoke and my body melted
My body was filled with joy as if I was in heaven.
I sold my parents property [1]for smoke.
I through myself into the bosom of the otherworld.[2]
The mysterious fog has bound my whole body.
My hopes and dreams remain in my heart as sweet dreams.[3]
Ah, when I woke up I was lying in a dark world
In this cold night as if I was embracing a lehet[4] (death)
The final day came towards me with its arms wide open.
Will the flower of my youth be over in such an untimely way?
Will my Mom cry during the day?
Will my Father cry in sadness?
Will they cry tears of blood?
Will they spend the rest of their lives in grief with hearts broken?
Where is my dear mom?
I want to be nourished by her love.
Who can save me from the arms of this maliciousness?

Uyghurs have used drugs like hashish for centuries. Young men pass around water pipes made out of gourds smoking in giant breaths; they roll joints mixed with tobacco with a particular right-angle bend in the middle. It’s only in the past decades that young men have begun to have their lives altered and shortened by new substances. It is only in Reform Era China that Uyghurs have found themselves in the mysterious fog of the new prison of physiological addiction and psychological anomie.

[1] Selling rugs or a mother’s gold bride price jewelry is an image often evoked as the ultimate price of drug addiction
[2] Comforts of drunkenness and inebriation, giving up on life, not caring, hedonism
[3] Never materialized
[4] Horizontal grave where body is placed
Filed under: Music


Dr. Darren Byler is an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Simon Fraser University where he teaches and writes about social theory, urban ethnography and the technopolitics of life in Chinese Central Asia. He also writes a regular column on state violence and Uyghur decolonization for SupChina.


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