Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 42, Issue 1, pp 49–68 | Cite as

Idling in Mao’s Shadow: Heroin Addiction and the Contested Therapeutic Value of Socialist Traditions of Laboring

  • Nicholas BartlettEmail author
Original Paper


The Chinese government has come under attack by international critics for forcing drug users to labor in the name of treatment. While joining these activists in criticizing conditions in compulsory labor centers, former detainees who congregated at a drop-in center in southern Yunnan also defended the therapeutic potential of socialist legacies of laboring. Shuttling between laboring in state compulsory centers and idling in a market economy, long-term heroin users saw their difficulties in recovering from addiction as inextricably linked to their inability to find suitable work opportunities. Certain drop-in center attendees maintained that earlier Communist laboring projects had helped wayward citizens, including drug addicts, “merge into” society as productive workers. This group evoked the stable long-term jobs and benefits once provided by local state-owned enterprises and the radical revolutionary power of “remolding through labor” they imagined to have existed in the first years of the People’s Republic as powerful alternatives to their recent crisis of idling. The nuanced ways that drop-in center regulars revisited the potential healing power of earlier traditions of socialist laboring as remedies to their contemporary struggles complicates long-standing debates about coercion in treatment and the responsibility of the postsocialist state towards marginalized workers.


Labor as treatment Addiction The state Compulsion China Unemployment 



This study was funded by the Fulbright Hays DDRA (Grant number P022A090070) and the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (Grant number 0921299).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Before starting my fieldwork, I helped to oversee Open Society Foundations grants to organizations in China working on health and human rights issues impacting drug users. I did not publish anything on labor as treatment during that period, Green Orchards was not a partner organization, and I finished my employment prior to conducting research in Gejiu.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

This is an original research article. This article is an original submission that has not been submitted or published elsewhere.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Asian and Middle Eastern CulturesBarnard CollegeNew YorkUSA

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