"All drug detention is, is work. We get up at five in the morning to make shoes. We work all day and
into the night. That's all it is," a former Chinese drug detainee told Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2009.
Du, another patient of a Chinese treatment program, echoed the complaint, saying, "The detox center is a
factory. We work every day, until late in the night, even if we are sick, even if we have AIDS."
In fact, treatment often contributes to unsafe behaviors;
another former detainee told HRW, "I'm
sure I was infected [with HIV] while I was in detention. We would all use one needle; this needle would go around the whole place."
So it came as a surprise to Joe Amon, Director of the Health and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, when a recent issue of Science
magazine published a study conducted in China in two detention centers without mentioning this context. The paper, titled "A Memory Retrieval-Extinction
Procedure to Prevent Drug Craving and Relapse," was conducted on rats as well as human drug-users in Beijing.
The findings themselves were quite interesting, demonstrating a mental
technique that could be used to help prevent relapse in former addicts. The authors state that the participants gave informed consent, gaining approval from the Peking University Health Center review board, but Mr. Amon questions the validity of the claim, noting that the Beijing Ankang Hospital and the Tian-Tang-He Drug Rehabilitation center
have historically been compulsory programs staffed with more police officers than doctors. Amon began to question the researchers' description of detained
drug users as "patients" and the detention centers as "hospitals." It's difficult, Amon says, to determine if "informed consent" in such a setting can be truly voluntary.
Although in the past few years China has dramatically increased the availability of methadone in community-based treatment centers, treatment options
remain inadequate. Amon explained, "In China, police can pick up anyone based on profiling, and force
them to take a urine test." If the sample comes back positive, he said, "People are then taken straight to a detention center, where they are usually kept
for two years or more." Previous detainees' ID cards -- used in China for many common activities, like checking into a hotel -- are marked, and police,
seeking to meet strict quotas, are allowed to track former addicts' IDs and demand urine samples at any point.
Patients in these centers do not have basic human rights protections, including the right to due process, the right to privacy, and the right to be free
from compulsory treatment. In closed settings such as administrative detention centers, Amon reiterated, research deserves more than the usual amount of
oversight -- not, as in this case, no independent monitoring at all.
The Chinese authors of the study defend their work in Science, saying in a written response, "We saw no indication of the abuses Amon
describes." They explain their work used subjects who they say were "court mandated" -- but as drug abuse in China isn't considered a criminal offense,
drug users are usually sent to detention centers without any formal trial, never seeing the inside of a courtroom. The scientists don't specifically
describe the care the study's subjects received, simply stating that all detention centers provide comprehensive care and citing a state media news account
quoting a detention center official. Without independent monitoring, it is uncertain what the facts may be.