Gold is valuable but jade is priceless, so goes a Chinese saying. For centuries, the Chinese consider jade an imperial stone with mystical properties. Today it is coveted all over China as a status symbol, a collectible and an investment.
Demand from increasingly wealthy Chinese drives the value of jade through the roof. At this year’s Shanghai World Jewellery Expo, auctioneers put the opening bid for top grade jade items at more than $160 a gram, exceeding four times the price of gold.
Intricately designed pieces, made from top grade jade known as jadeite, are viewed as attractive investments despite the lack of scientific valuation methods. In recent years, jadeite has provided better returns than real estate.
But the imperial stone delivers a death sentence to treasure hunters in Myanmar, where China’s jadeite comes from.
Most of Myanmar’s raw jade enters a murky black market. Its official revenue from jade exports over from 2011 to 2014 was $1.3bn. But Harvard University’s Ash Center estimates total jade sales – including through unofficial channels – were $8bn in 2011 alone, suggesting most of the revenue does not go into government coffers.
The Myanmar government will not speak to us on camera. But our investigations reveal a corrupt senior government official who works with businessmen in the illegal trade of raw jade, including helping to falsify tax documents.
In northern Kachin state, we follow jade smugglers to the remote Hpakant mining town, the source of the world’s best jade. The men are part of the government’s border guard force. The officer in charge tells us how he pays off army and police commanders along the smuggling trail to China.
Hpakant is out of bounds to foreigners and no foreign journalists have been known to make it there for years. Large mining companies suspended operations here in 2012 after the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar government went to war the preceding year, ending a 17-year ceasefire. With peace talks stalling, most companies have yet to resume excavation.
Despite the tension, tens of thousands of small time jade pickers have flooded Hpakant to sift through mine tailings, risking life and limb to toil in harsh conditions, hoping to strike jackpot. Some work alone, others in groups supported by businessmen. Their findings often go straight into the black market, forming the unregulated bedrock of the industry today.
A dark force fuels their labour. Jade picker Aik San estimates 75 percent of the miners have become drug addicts. They get their daily dose of heroin or yama – a type of methamphetamine – from drug dens around town. It numbs them from their backbreaking labour and helps them work longer hours in the harsh weather. With hidden cameras, we obtain shocking footage from the drug dens, revealing the scale of drug abuse that infests the underbelly of the jade trade. We also find a drug rehabilitation centre in Kachin state with more than 50 recovering addicts from the mining town. One of them, Aung Kyaw Moe, painfully shares how his employer paid him and fellow workers with heroin to get them hooked so they would work harder for their next dose.
As the hammer goes down in major Chinese cities for more glitzy jade items auctioned off at record levels, wealthy collectors celebrate yet another treasure possessed. It offers stark contrast to the wretched lives of mine pickers at the bottom of the supply chain, in a land far away.
101 East investigates the jade smuggling trail and uncovers the human cost of the imperial stone.
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