A Survey on the Christian Drug Rehabilitation Institutions in China

A gospel drug rehabilitation center
A gospel drug rehabilitation center
By Zhuo HuiliJuly 5th, 2022

In the past 50 years, more than 30 Christian drug rehabilitation institutions have been established in China to provide drug rehabilitation services. Different from general drug rehabilitation centers, Christian drug rehabilitation institutions treat drug addiction as a spiritual issue. They adhere to the principle of "solely relying on Jesus in place of medication." The root cause of drug addiction is treated through the Christian faith. These institutions are characterized by religious belief, and by independently scattered and private operations. Most Christian rehabilitation institutions in mainland China were founded later than those in Hong Kong or Taiwan. They were often founded because of humanitarian and religious reasons. Their daily program is dominated by religious activities, and their treatment outcome is better than traditional rehabilitation centers. They have made contributions to anti-drug efforts. Regrettably, the academic sector is rarely involved in the study of religious drug rehabilitation institutions and overlooks their innovative thinking in solving the addiction problem. This article sorts out the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in Greater China. It also compares and contrasts the Christian rehabilitation services in the three regions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, in hope to make this new mode of rehabilitation known to outsiders.

As one of the most difficult health issues to treat, drug addiction has become a problem plaguing China and the world. It is rapidly increasing and affecting the younger population. Although most of the patients have a sense of quitting, the outcome of traditional treatments is not satisfactory. According to research, more than 95% of people with drug addiction problems are aware of the dangers of drugs and are willing to quit. However, they often cannot help themselves with cravings, and cycle between recoveries and relapses. In general, the relapse rate of people with drug addiction problems is higher than 90%. Traditional rehab treatment and forced isolation can alleviate patients' physical dependence on drugs to a certain extent, but patients' "psychological dependence" on drugs is often difficult to eradicate.

In recent years, drug control as a hot-button social issue has attracted more and more attention from the government and non-government. Many charitable organizations in the regions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have participated in rehabilitation services, including Christian drug rehabilitation institutions. These institutions are different from traditional rehabilitation centers in terms of founding beliefs, treatment approaches, marketing, and treatment outcome. Centered on those in Yunnan, this article compares and contrasts the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in the three regions on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, in hope to benefit the current drug control efforts.

Statistics of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in Greater China: comparisons on quantity, history, locations, and founding reasons

In terms of number, there are more than 35 Christian rehabilitation institutions in Greater China, including 17 in Hong Kong, 16 in mainland China, and two in Taiwan. Some institutions operate in multiple locations. For instance, Kunming Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center has eight locations in Yunnan; Operation Dawn has 13 locations in Taiwan and four in Hong Kong. If the sizes of population and area are taken into consideration, Hong Kong has the most number of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions per capita, followed by Taiwan, and then mainland China.

In terms of geographical location, most of the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China are gathered in Greater Yunnan and Guangdong, which are Guangdong, Hunan, and Fujian, to be precise. Among them, those in Yunnan account for almost half of the total in mainland China. This is due to the unique geographical features of Greater Yunnan and Guangdong. Yunnan shares a long border with the "Golden Triangle," and has become the hardest hit area for substance abuse. Its drug problem is escalating. Yunnan is also the second-largest region in China where ethnic minorities reside. Strong ethnic awareness and dispersed inhabitants of these minority groups have caused difficulties in management. Yunnan is mountainous, especially in the west, where accessibility becomes an issue. In remote rural areas, people are more susceptible to substance abuse because medical care is relatively scarce, entertainment is very limited, and there is more free time.

In chronological order, the establishment of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China is relatively recent. It was less than 20 years ago when Chenggong Taocheng Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center was established as the earliest of its kind. In contrast, 80% of those in Hong Kong were established more than 20 years ago. In Taiwan, it has been nearly 30 years since the establishment of the two Christian drug rehabilitation institutions. Among them, the Lutheran Church Drug Rehabilitation Center and Operation Dawn in Hong Kong have been running for more than 50 years. They are the oldest Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in greater China and even Asia. It is worth mentioning that the development of the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China in the past 10 years has shown an upward trend, while the development of those in Hong Kong and Taiwan has tended to ease. The service becomes a dominant monopoly in Taiwan.

With regard to founders, one-third of the founders of the Christian drug rehabilitation centers in mainland China have a history of addiction. After they successfully recovered, they had offered help in return to those who suffer from addictions. In fact, those who recover are generally well-received by and can empathize with people with additional problems. Almost half of the teachers in Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center in Yunnan Province have a history of addiction. Out of their gratitude for the gospel-based rehabilitation, they help others with additional problems in turn after their recovery.

There are some other Christian drug rehabilitation centers established by churches. Three main reasons are found for churches to establish a rehabilitation center. The first is for the practical needs of missions. When talking about the original intention of its founding, Mr. Ren of Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center said, "Baoshan is located in the border, with diverse ethnic groups and conservatives. Most of the people are indifferent to or even reject the gospel. It is difficult to break through the roadblocks in the missionary field. The successful development of the Christian drug rehabilitation program can witness the 'power of God', restore people's hearts, and promote missionary work."

The second reason is that many Christian drug rehabilitation centers are founded out of humanitarian care for people with additional problems. Pastor Paul Chen, the founder of Operation Dawn, recalled his experience in founding, "The addiction problem in Hong Kong was significant in the 1960s. When passing Kowloon every morning, I often saw scrawny bodies squatting or lying there. The houses were full of smoke and foul smelling. Occasionally there were burlap bags dragged out from public restrooms. Inside the bags were those who died from drug addiction."

Partnerships with secular drug rehabilitation centers under the support of the government are the third reason for founding a rehabilitation center. For example, with the support of the Guangzhou Drug Rehabilitation Bureau, Guangzhou YMCA has collaborated with various compulsory drug rehabilitation centers for 14 years. In 2016, it established the social work station of rehabilitation assistance and education in Guangzhou to create a platform based on families, rehabilitation centers, and community resources.

Comparison of Christian components, populations served, and daily activities of Christian drug rehabilitation centers

Gospel-based is the most important difference between Christian drug rehabilitation centers and general ones. Many churches cite and use the Bible as the theoretical foundation for Christian drug rehabilitation. This approach has greatly alleviated the division and controversy within the church over Christian drug rehabilitation.

Under this unique ideology, the vast majority of Christian drug rehabilitation centers consider addictions as a "mental issue" rather than a physical one. This is particularly noticeable in the external communications of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions. The treatment principle of Operation Dawn in Hong Kong is "solely rely on Jesus in place of medication or self-reliance." Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center explains clearly in its Drug Rehabilitation Manual that rehabilitation is about “sin” rather than “drug”; it is spiritual rather than physical; it is a matter of “addiction” rather than “disease.”

Drug addiction is not only a physical health issue, but also a "product of sin." The work of drug rehab is transformed into a work of "sin removal." Therefore, professing Christian faith is the primary premise of the treatment. Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center requires that those who sign up for the program must be willing to profess Christian faith. This has become a typical requirement of the Christian drug rehabilitation centers in mainland China. From this point of view, the "Christian nature" of the Christian drug rehabilitation in mainland China is stronger than that of Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is worth mentioning that the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in Hong Kong and Taiwan generally do not require clients to convert their faith.

There are at least a few reasons for this: First, many of the Christian drug rehabilitation centers in mainland China are founded by “recovered people” who have succeeded in Christian drug rehabilitation. Due to the lack of funds, they cannot accommodate a large number of clients. Priority is given to those who are willing to profess the Christian faith. Most of the Christian drug rehabilitation centers in Hong Kong and Taiwan are located in cities, with relatively abundant funds. They are founded or assisted by foreign missionaries, and the evangelistic nature is often not emphasized as much.

Secondly, Christian churches in mainland China pay more attention to spiritual life and pastoral care. They do not think that being overly involved in secular affairs is necessary. In contrast, most Christians in Hong Kong and Taiwan believe that churches should care about the general public, especially the disadvantaged in communities. It has always been a tradition to participate in community services.

Thirdly, believers’ views on the rehab programs are divided within many churches in mainland China. They are puzzled about using believers’ financial offerings to support drug rehabilitation services. It is a waste of funds from their standpoint.

Taking Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center in Yunnan as an example, the evangelical feature of the Center is reflected in the following daily activities:

First of all, spiritual life becomes the main content of daily activities. After professing their faith, the clients are taken to the recovery room, where a staff member prays and cares for them 24 hours a day. For a year and a half since the admission, the daily activities have been centered on praying, reading the Bible, and attending classes.

Secondly, church visits are scheduled every month for the clients to participate. During the visits, the clients share their testimonies and experiences of drug addiction, rehabilitation, and "salvation". Their sharing often links the treatment with Christian teachings. The encouragement and support they receive from the church members become their source of strength. This approach has created a virtuous cycle.

Thirdly, work and exercise are part of the treatment. The Center has breeding cages, small-scale farmland, and basketball courts. There are 3 hours of work and exercise every day.

It is worth noting that most Christian drug rehabilitation institutions focus on group activities and give their clients little personal time. Group activities help increase the accountability of group members and consolidate the treatment outcome. Within a year and a half of rehabilitation is the peak period of relapse. Group cohesion is enhanced through praying for each other and engaging in singing, working, and exercising in groups. This approach helps the clients gain confidence in the rehabilitation.

In terms of populations served, the clients in mainland China are relatively homogeneous, while the Christian rehab programs in Hong Kong and Taiwan are more inclusive.

According to the author’s statistics, thirteen of the 16 Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China serve mainly male clients, accounting for 81.25% of the total. In Hong Kong, seven of the 15 provide treatment to males only, which is 46.7% of the total.

Regarding the services available to female clients, there are 6 Christian drug rehab institutions in Hong Kong geared towards this population. Among them are Barnabas Charitable Service Association and Ark Action of Christian New Life Association. In mainland China, only Guangzhou Shengen Life Reconstruction Home provides services for females. In fact, the number of females with drug addiction in mainland China is higher than that in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the number of female rehab programs is the other way around. That is particularly disappointing.

To the author’s knowledge, there is no Christian drug rehabilitation institution specifically targeting youths in mainland China. In Hong Kong, there are 5 institutions that take youths. Among them, Christian Zheng Sheng College, The Christian New Being Fellowship, and New Life Ministries solely provide services for youths.

However, it is encouraging to see a diversified development trend in the services provided by the Christian drug rehabilitation programs no matter in mainland China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. The programs go beyond drug rehab and include rehab programs for addictions to alcohol, nicotine, and gambling. Some even serve AIDS patients and people with mental health issues such as depression.

Comparison of program marketing and vocational choices of the program graduates

The marketing approaches of the Christian drug rehabilitation centers differ from region to region. Those in mainland China primarily promote the services within churches and by setting up billboards in local communities. Most of the billboards are in the form of traditional blackboards, which has limited the population reached. It is rare to promote or recruit clients through websites or social media. However, most of the Christian drug rehab institutions in Hong Kong and Taiwan run their own websites to post recent activities, testimonies, educational rehabilitation information, and the introduction of the institution. Operation Dawn in Taiwan and some institutions in Hong Kong even set up online counseling rooms on their websites. In addition, they organize groups of fans on social media. Their websites and publications contain cartoons and short videos, making them popular among young people.

In terms of vocational choices, most program graduates have re-entered the communities, and there is not much difference in this regard across the regions. Some serve in churches and other related jobs. Generally, the institutions allow their graduates to freely choose their vocational direction. Some programs provide vocational skills training. Graduates sometimes choose to study theology and stay to serve in the church or work in the rehab program.

Evaluation and Suggestions on Christian drug rehabilitation

Reflecting on the history of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in the three places on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, it is not difficult to find that these institutions are developing. To some degree, these kinds of institutions that combine religious belief with humanitarian care help make up for the possible insufficiency of government organizations in care for the disadvantaged. It is also a manifestation of the humanitarian care of religions. Fortunately, from the periphery of the social hot-button, Christian drug rehabilitation institutions have increasingly received attention and partnerships from the religious, political, and academic sectors, providing great impetus for the development of these rehab institutions. Take Baoshan Christian Drug Rehabilitation Center as an example. Although it is in a remote and underdeveloped area, it has received the attention and support of Yunnan government and religious institutions in recent years. It has gradually become a "new star" among the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions across the regions. In September 2017, it was acknowledged on its tenth anniversary and supported by Baoshan Municipal Government and the Christian Council.

It is evident that the Christian drug rehab programs in mainland China have been successful even though there is still room for improvement.

First, most of the Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China are small in scale, and their management systems and team collaboration need to be improved. The roles and collaboration of teams are better defined in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The institutions in these two places also set up a "halfway home" for the clients who have been enrolled for more than one year. This is to better prepare for their return to communities and a mechanism worth considering for the programs in mainland China.

Second, the program scope of Christian drug rehabilitation institutions in mainland China has yet to be expanded. For the time being, they mainly target adult males and seldom accept females and teenagers. The services provided are primarily for drug rehabilitation and less diversified in comparison with those in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Third, many Christian drug rehabilitation institutions are founded by individuals and operate within families. They are situated in a gray area at the legal level, which could result in legal issues. If a legal representative can be established with professional medical consultants and psychiatrists on duty, it will benefit the long-term development of the Christian drug rehabilitation institution.

(This article was originally published on the WeChat account of Faith and Learning, a Christian academic magazine on Chinese Christianity. CCD reprinted with permission and does not own the copyright.)

- Translated by June I. Chen

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