Rat Poison: Murder Weapon of Choice in Rural China
By JIM YARDLEY, The New York Times
LONGFENG, China — The red-and-white banners with the latest government propaganda fluttered above the grimy main street, warning farmers at an outdoor market about a substance that might not spring to mind as a dire menace: rat poison.
Yet the Chinese government regards the most lethal form of the poison, called Dushuqiang, very seriously. Since Oct. 1, anyone convicted of making, storing or selling the poison faces a prison sentence or even death. Government agents have raided illegal stocks and urged residents to hand over any private stashes.
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"Stamp Out Dushuqiang, the tumor threatening people's lives," declared one of the banners. Another banner prodded, "If there is Dushuqiang at home, please hand it over and you will rest assured."
All the government interest raises the obvious question: why?
The answer is that in a country where private gun ownership is prohibited and where serious violent crime is considered rare, Dushuqiang has become a murder weapon. In a high-profile case on Oct. 21 in this mountainous region of Hubei Province in central China, officials say a woman killed 10 guests at her husband's funeral banquet by sprinkling poison on the food.
Nor are such attacks particularly unusual. The World Health Organization lists poisoning, accidental or intentional, as one of the top 10 causes of death for Chinese ages 5 to 29.
One Chinese Web site, Sina.com, has already reported a possible copycat poisoning in which funeral guests were sickened but not killed. The authorities also reported a poisoning on Oct. 23 in Shaanxi Province in which 16 people were hospitalized, they said, after a jealous barbecue-stand operator poisoned the food at a barbecue stand that was outselling him.
Several times a year, the Chinese news is filled with tales of restaurant owners poisoning the food in rival restaurants, or of teachers poisoning students, or, as happened a few years ago, of a zookeeper poisoning animals to spite his boss. The worst case happened last year when 49 people, many of them children, were killed in an intentional poisoning.
"Hypertoxic rat poisons have become a tool for criminals, a massive threat to public health and safety," warned a recent report in the state-controlled China Work Safety News.
The motives for the deliberate poisonings, many of which occur in rural areas, are often the same sorts of grudges, feuds and animus that lead to killings everywhere. With other weapons in short supply, the poison is popular for those who want to kill, though officials say most of the poisonings, fatal and otherwise, are accidental. Many rural people are unaware of the poison's extreme lethality.
Still, some analysts believe that the attacks offer a window into the frustrations felt by some rural Chinese whose lives are remote from courts and other legal means of settling disputes.
"In rural areas when conflicts happen, there is no way to solve them," said Ming Xia, an associate professor at City University of New York who studies crime in China. "Most likely, the local leaders will be arbitrary in solving the conflicts. They do not give it justice."
Statistics are often unreliable in China, but various reports in the state news media suggest that there are about 100,000 serious food poisoning cases a year, both lethal and otherwise, with up to 70 percent caused by rat poisons or pesticides.
Dushuqiang is so lethal that the government first banned it more than a decade ago, though apparently with little effect. It contains tetramine, a chemical that attacks the nervous system. The demand for effective rat poison remains great because China, with 1.3 billion people, also probably has billions of rats.
Mr. Xia said that under Mao, the government regularly sponsored and coordinated nationwide rat extermination campaigns, but that such efforts were now far less sweeping — like the recent government program to train 10 Siberian foxes to hunt rats that are destroying crops and woodlands in northwest China.
Guo Yongwang, a Ministry of Agriculture official, said the government began cracking down on illegal rat poison in April only to have the program interrupted by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. Still, officials say they have already seized more than 105 tons of illegal poisons, mixing materials, bottles and containers.
"The efforts have been quite effective," Mr. Guo said. "You won't be able to find Dushuqiang and other highly lethal rat poisons in the market, although there still might be some illegal peddlers selling them secretly."
Here in Longfeng, a town along the mountainous trucking route that runs through the western section of Hubei Province, the outdoor market has stalls selling fresh produce, tofu, sides of beef, spices and glass containers filled with fish. Until the recent crackdown after the funeral poisonings, the market also apparently had peddlers selling banned rat poisons.
One clerk in a hardware store beside the market said that the number of peddlers had declined in recent years but that the poison could still be found. He said he bought a small supply a few years ago.
"People are still selling it," a woman selling cabbage said.
Farther west, in the city of Lichuan, officials have handed out leaflets warning people to turn over Dushuqiang by Nov. 25 or face fines and possible prison time if they are caught with it. The Lichuan police, who led the investigation into the funeral poisonings, refused to discuss the case or provide any details.
But reports in various state-run newspapers say the confessed murderer, Chen Xiaomei, had been estranged from her husband and her oldest son. When her husband died, Mrs. Chen was reported to have sprinkled the poison on the food at the traditional funeral meal. She told officials she had wanted only to sicken her family members so that they would need to ask for her help in paying for medical treatment.
Instead, the poison killed 10 guests, including members of Mrs. Chen's family. Then, little more than a week later, a similar poisoning occurred in Zaoyang, also in Hubei Province. Initial reports said 34 people had been poisoned, though none fatally. Other recent cases include that of an Anhui Province villager poisoned by his wife; a chain of poisonings in Jiangxi Province that left 7 people dead; and a factory in Guangzhou where more than 200 workers were poisoned.
News of the funeral poisonings has already spread in the most isolated farming areas here in Hubei. Tian Shigui, 45, lives in a small house along the trucking route and raises corn. She spends much of every day slowly working through the piles of corn, picking off the dry kernels either for making cornmeal or for feeding her pigs.
She said that she knew people who used illegal poisons but that she considered them too risky, even though her corn makes a tempting target for rats. "It's not safe," she said. "It would hurt my pigs."
So she has resorted to another time-tested solution: a cat.
Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company.