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    Why 'Breaking Bad' Should Be Set in China

    Written by

    Eveline Chao

    Above: a Thai policeman guards a shipment of meth pills smuggled from China

    It was in China that I was introduced to meth. Specifically, it was thanks to Beijing's pirated DVD shops that I first saw Breaking Bad, or as my dealer knew it, 绝命毒师 jué mìng dú shī—literally, “deadly drug master.”

    Since returning to the US and a Netflix account, I've been able to partake in the ugly, tangled moral struggles of Walter White under more legal circumstances. It turns out that Breaking Bad is a great way to get reacclimated to America after five years of living abroad--the show serves as a solid document of suburban, post-recession American desperation if I've ever seen one.

    But I haven't been able to get China out of my head. In fact, the more I've watched, the more I've realized that the show could easily be transplanted to the People's Republic and largely be the same thing. And possibly, even better.

    If you’ve ever seen the show, you probably know that most of the meth in the US comes from Mexico. China doesn't get mentioned there, nor in much of the press reporting on the US drug war. But to get the massive quantities of the dozens of industrial chemicals needed to cook the stuff, Mexican drug manufacturers turn to the country where most everything else seems to be made.

    Records of large drug busts involving meth in recent years--an increasingly common occurrence--tend to show a trail that leads back to China. Last January, the Mexican navy announced that a single bust had yielded 195 tons of meth chemicals in a Chinese shipment, following a six-week period that netted an additional 900 tons of precursor chemicals. In April, three tons of methylamine chloride, a chemical used in pharmaceuticals and pesticides, was found at LAX in a shipment from China; it was on its way to Mexico, where it was bound to be cooked into $40 million of methamphetamine for American consumers. The list gets longer.

    American officials now estimate that 80 percent of the meth consumed in the US is Mexican-made--with ingredients from China. “The rising threat of new synthetic drugs requires a truly international response, and we look forward to extending our cooperative work with China to address the dangers that these substances pose to the citizens of both our countries," Berit Hallberg, a spokesman for the White House’s drug czar, said in a statement to Stars and Stripes. James Rendon, the Coast Guard Rear Admiral in charge of the DoD's Joint Interagency Task Force West, described the meth-from-China problem more simply: “It is a big problem, and it is getting bigger.”

    In China--where crystal meth is generally called 冰 bing, or ice, and “doing meth” is called 溜冰 liu bing, or “ice skating”--the meth picture is a mirror image of that of the US. Both are large countries pocked with wide-open spaces that are ideal for homemade recipes of the smelly, noxious, explosive stuff. Whether you're in Indiana or Shanxi, it's in these rural spaces where meth consumption is most rampant, not least because it’s cheap and offers a lot of bang for your buck–users report a high that, unlike coke, lasts for hours.

    In these rural areas in China, meth has become popular among populations not previously pegged as drug users. Truck drivers take it to stay awake for days on long-distance runs. Blue-collar or factory workers take it so they can work more hours, and to alleviate the tedium of mechanical drudgery. In both countries, the drug is also starting to penetrate urban areas as a party and sex accompaniment: it induces euphoria, and heightens sexual arousal and stamina.

    Ephedra sinica, meth precursor extraordinaire, growing in the wild (via)

    Procuring the so-called precursor chemicals for meth is arguably easier in China than in the States. Ephedra sinica, the cone-bearing shrub that provides these ingredients, is native to China. The plant has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine--as a tea, for example, or in those stinky, gray pills of ground-up herbs and dubious body parts of creatures that are used to treat colds, headaches, asthma, and bronchitis.

    Today, government farms across China supply the country’s legal ephedrine industry, and alongside India, help to make China the top exporter of bulk ephedrine in the world. Between 1992 and 1998, China implemented several regulations on the control of chemicals like ephedrine, according to the UN's rules.

    Because it’s something you can cook up on your own with pseudoephedrine, readily available industrial chemicals, and a two-liter soda bottle (shake and bake, anyone?), it’s much easier to get a hold of quality meth in most of China than other drugs. Cocaine must be smuggled all the way from South America. Heroin--made from the kind of opium that started one of China's most violent wars, and remains a source of wounded national pride--now comes, with difficulty, across the border from Myanmar and Afghanistan. While marijuana grows wild in parts of southern China--you can see it being sold by road-side grandmas in hippie backpacker towns like Dali in Yunnan Province--it’s weak and scrubby and, I imagine, closer to the mellow stuff American parents are always saying they smoked during the 60s.

    But meth has presented a new challenge to China's anti-drug regime, and the government is on the offensive. In September the country began requiring ID for people buying cold medicine containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the two precursor chemicals for methamphetamine, and rationing the amount consumers can buy. Enforcement, of course, remains uneven: a friend in Beijing who tested out the new rule at a Chinese pharmacy managed to buy a Chinese brand of Sudafed without an ID, simply by producing a phone number.

    China isn't yet the big consumer of meth that America seems to be, but it's on its way. Ask a drug cop in any US county, particularly in western states, and you'll find that meth has surpassed heroin and cocaine to become their most serious problem. Figures on drug usage are fuzzy, but 400,000 Americans are believed to be addicted to meth, with usage estimated at 1 percent of the population over 12. That's much higher than heroin, and half the rate for cocaine.

    Beijing, meanwhile, claims to count 1.79 million “registered drug addicts” across China as of the end of 2011, with 64.5 percent of them using heroin and 32.7 percent using “new types of drugs such as methamphetamine or ketamine.” That would put the number of addicted to meth and other drugs at 585,330, which isn't exactly comparable to the US, given China's comparatively larger population.

    But keep two things in mind. Chinese statistics always deserve to be taken with a grain of salt--it's not exactly clear what a "registered" "drug addict" is, for one--and drug use in China, like almost everywhere else in the world, is rising, thanks to higher incomes, increased trade, and a steady supply and demand coming from around the region. The World Health Organization reports that East Asia and Oceania are now the epicenters of meth consumption.


    Political geography also plays a giant role in both countries' growing meth problems. Eighty percent of the meth sold in America now comes from Mexico, where the drug is becoming cheaper and stronger as the cartels shift away from cocaine. This is both in response to market demand, and also makes things easier for the cartels, because meth can be made at home without having to rely on cocaine imports from Colombia.

    In many ways, North Korea is like China's Mexico, a neighbor that handles a production line that's shifting in response to internal crackdowns. Reportedly, much of the methamphetamine production is centered in Hamheung, the DPRK's second city, which is thought to have been one of the worst-hit cities during the famine and, thanks to a chemical-industrial complex built by the Japanese during World War II, boasts a high concentration of chemists.

    Reporting from the North Korean border last year, journalist Isaac Stone Fish heard estimates that anywhere from zero to 50 percent of the North Korean population has tried the drug. Usage levels in Chinese cities that border North Korea are extremely high, too. It's hardly surprising that the world's most dismal, law-enforced dictatorship would inspire a thriving market for a psychostimulant narcotic. “There’s so little hope in North Korea," one defector told Stone Fish, "that’s why ice is becoming popular. People have given up.”

    To the south, Chinese drug czars must contend with the Golden Triangle, that infamous patch of jungle comprised of Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Drugs from here--like "magu," the Thai word for a stimulant made by combining methamphetamine with caffeine--are funneled into China’s interior but also land at Chinese ports, where they continue onwards via shipping routes to the international market. These poppy-cultivating countries have long been the production center for most of China's heroin, which until recently was the most widely abused drug in the country.

    In recent years, though, drug busts have started to yield more ATSs (amphetamine-type stimulants) than opiates. During 2009, 3.2 tons of methamphetamine was seized in Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar to the east, amounting to a 47 percent leap over 2008's numbers. The 93.3 million methamphetamine pills seized in 2009 in China, Laos, Burma and Thailand, represented a threefold bump over 2008. In 2010, total seizures reached 144 million pills. Much like the Mexican cartels, the Golden Triangle is likely going through an “upgrade,” as a paper from Brookings Institute put it, and “transforming from traditional drugs to new synthetic drugs, following demand of the international drug market.”

    Police collect materials for synthesizing precursor chemicals

    To the west, China shares borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan, which along with Iran make up another massive drug producing center called the Golden Crescent. Here, too, the drug picture is shifting from heroin to ATS, and being trafficked to China. Clearly, there’s a crapload of meth coming into China from all sides, on top of whatever gets cooked up within its borders.

    But beyond all these facts of botany and taste and crime and punishment, China is also a perfect cauldron for the big moral and spiritual motivations that underpin America's national meth-making television pastime. The People's Republic in 2012 roiled with the same male woundedness and anger as Breaking Bad, with its attendant obsession with money and power and status, to boot; it has the same macho notion that a man's primary duty is to provide for his family, and that anything done in the service of that responsibility is morally excusable.

    In the face of a widening gap between rich and poor, China is familiar with the same resentment at the haves and have-nots. And as a relationship-based society, it has the same simmering personal tensions that spill out from individual ambitions and vendettas into the highest levels of government, law, art and the criminal world. As the country continues to leap from poverty to (unevenly-distributed) wealth, it's grappling with the same fundamental questions routinely raised on Breaking Bad: questions about meaning and morals, of personal integrity, of how one is or fails to be good in a disappointing, devastating place.

    Our Chinese Mr. White—let’s call him Mr. Wang—would also be a schoolteacher. Though China has traditionally been a deeply scholastic culture that reveres teachers, the stature of educators has plummeted in modern, capitalist times. Much like teachers in the US, Chinese educators are grossly underpaid and no longer get anywhere near the respect they deserve.

    Like Mr. White, Mr. Wang was a stellar student in school, but due to some mysterious situation involving his college lab partner and an ex-girlfriend who may or may not have stolen all his research secrets, he decided to reject the path to riches that his school friends took, which probably involved joining the Communist Party and becoming a government cadre who gets wined and dined as gifted Patek Philippe watches and high-end prostitutes by ambitious businessmen.

    Or maybe it involved founding an Internet company located in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s equivalent to Silicon Valley, which after a few years of head-to-head competition against its Western equivalents, zoomed to instant success as China's top search engine/e-commerce site/social media platform after the government deployed its internet censoring mechanism, the Great Firewall, to conveniently block all its Western competitors. Either way, Mr. Wang could have been the disaffected, well-off owner of a shiny black Audi sedan.

    Instead, he's a schoolteacher, and he definitely has lung cancer, just like Walter. Because the pollution is terrible in the second- or third-tier city where he lives, and because three in ten adults in China smoke cigarettes. Mr. Wang’s son would likely have cerebral palsy too, and, as it is for Walter White, it would mean a tremendous financial burden. Wang, Jr.’s condition would likely be worse because of the poor to nonexistent health-care options for people like him. He'd more likely be in a wheelchair, and if he’s in a wheelchair, he probably couldn't attend school in China, where access for the handicapped still has a long way to go. In a poorer town, Wang, Jr. would have been abandoned young, or sent to beg on the street. But fortunately his parents, with the help of relatives, have always been able to maintain just enough of a toe-hold in the middle class to take care of him, even if it’s at home and likely without access to school.

    (The one side benefit to having a son with cerebral palsy is that, potentially, the Wangs would be allowed to have a second child, penalty-free. If not, though, they would need to scrape together the money needed to either pay the fine for violating the one-child policy, or pay off the relevant authorities to look the other way.)


    Like Hank, the DEA agent, Mr. Wang’s brother-in-law is a fat cop, because cops in China are always either literally or metaphorically fat. If you wear a big badge in China you are likely to be on the receiving end of bribes, high-end Scotch, secret bank transfers, plum jobs for your relatives and general sycophancy.

    Perhaps the Chinese Hank would be on the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission, which in 2005 opened a new “Northeastern battlefield” to fight cross-border drug smuggling, which really means "deal with North Korea". Curiously, because of its complicated relationship with North Korea--China is a sort of patron and protector to the country, but deeply wary of any volatility along its borders, and of the flood of poor refugees that would entail--China has never explicitly named North Korea in its media reports about drug problems in its northeast.

    Business on Breaking Bad: China would certainly be killer, but the stakes could be worse. Trafficking more than 50 grams of hard drugs in China can put you on the wrong end of a needle or firing squad. China, which executes more criminals than the rest of the world combined, is facing new pressures from death penalty critics who want global funds to stop sending anti-drug money to China. But anti-drug officials like to boast their execution rate; as Xinhua reported, in June authorities around China celebrated International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking by sentencing six men to death and executing seven--all for methamphetamine-related drugs. One man was in posession of only 4 kilos, or 8.8 pounds, of meth.

    A recent road-side meth bust in China (NBC News)

    American punishments, by contrast, are tame. On December 3, federal prosecutors in San Francisco announced one of the largest crystal meth seizures in US history: 11 people were arrested for smuggling more than 570 pounds of methamphetamine worth more than $6 million into the US. Last November, meanwhile, 21 people from Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces were arrested in conjunction with the smuggling of a relatively measly 4.16 kilos of heroin and 5.67 kilos of meth. The Americans are facing long jail terms and million-dollar fines; the Chinese face execution.

    As for the Chinese version of Jesse Pinkman, the meth-addled assistant to Mr. White, his problems might have begun when he failed the gaokao, the entrance examination needed to test into a good high school. After dropping out of school, he has too much pride to move to a bigger city and work in an electronics factory like his peers. He sells pirated junk on the street, instead, or maybe factory goods that his friends boost from their jobs--until he gets involved in making meth.

    Without spoiling the show, the Chinese Breaking Bad would also incorporate a complicated story about kingpins, cartels and the like. As another, earlier Brookings paper points out, increasing drug abuse in Northeast China will lead to a substantially increased supply of illicit drugs. This will stimulate drug production in North Korea, and will also attract other international drug trafficking organizations. Some have speculated that Afghan heroin smuggled into the Russian Federation will be re-trafficked into Northeast China via the China-Russia border.

    And, as last year's busts in LA and Mexico show, more meth activity in Asia also means more supplies to Mexico, which means more meth in the US. The White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy and other agencies have said that the US is seeking more cooperation from China in cracking down, for example by increasing regulation of the industrial chemicals used in meth production.

    But US-China drug cooperation has a checkered past. The two countries first announced their intention to share intelligence and otherwise work together on drug control in 1985, and even signed the “China-U.S. Memorandum of Cooperation in Narcotic Drugs Control” two years later. Yet efforts were hindered by the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and an awkward incident in 1988 when China cooperated on something called the “Goldfish” case (involving heroin trafficked from China to San Francisco inside dead goldfish), which sent a captured drug smuggler named Wang Zongxiao to testify in an American trial for the first time, and then Wang requested political asylum. Cooperation efforts have been rekindled several times to uneven effect, and even today suffer from mutual suspicion.

    This means that after our Chinese Breaking Bad goes off the air, the stage is set for a Breaking Bad movie in which the storylines of the US and Chinese versions intertwine. Walter White goes into business with his Chinese supplier, Mr. Wang, who sends ingredients cleverly disguised, probably inside boxes for cheap smartphones.