On October 17, the US Department of Justice (DoJ) charged two Chinese nationals with manufacturing and distributing fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in the United States. According to a DoJ press release, 40-year-old Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang, 38, ran separate fentanyl labs in China,  manufacturing the potent synthetic opioid and selling it online to Americans. However, it will be extremely difficult for the DoJ to extradite the men to the US to face trial.

These indictments point towards the severity of the opioid crisis in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in 2016, and this number continues to increase. This new synthetic drug is said to be 100 times more potent than morphine and is trafficked to North America via mail/international courier or shipped from factories.

While the illegal trade is often associated with Mexico, in the last few years, Chinese synthetic drugs have been flooding the US drug market

While the illegal trade is often associated with Mexico, in the last few years, Chinese synthetic drugs have been flooding the US drug market. The sale of fentanyl in the US has been a felony for decades but it was unregulated in China. Recently, the Chinese authorities, in response to requests made by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), added fentanyl and other synthetic drugs to China’s list of controlled substances. China has also been a prime source of precursor chemicals in the last few years. They are used by clandestine labs in the US for manufacturing or processing drugs including crystal methamphetamine.

The fentanyl indictments bring to the forefront China’s US$82 billion illegal drug trade. In 2014, President Xi Jinping announced a crackdown on illegal drug activities, including aggressive measures such as random drug testing in bars and high-profile arrests (Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee Chan, for example, was arrested). China already has some of the harshest drug laws in the world and more drug regulations than any other country. Despite international criticism, the country has also designated possession or sale of drugs as a capital offense.

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These measures have been effective to some extent. Since 2001, the Chinese authorities have announced significant seizures of heroin, opium, cocaine, MDMA, methamphetamine and ketamine. 

Furthermore, domestic surveillance and state control of land use have made it difficult to produce opium in China. Stricter measures such as requiring addicts to register with the police have also made drug use much more of a social taboo.

However, no enforcement measures will be sufficient until the problem is tackled in the source countries. Opium is supplied to China by producers in Myanmar, a dominant player in the Golden Triangle narcotics trade. The Mekong River runs through the heart of the Golden Triangle, providing a convenient conduit for transporting drugs within the region and to China. Thus, if China wants to curb the illegal drug trade on its mainland, it will have to step up its presence in the Mekong region. But despite its political and economic power in the region, China has made little progress over the past few years.

China’s National Narcotics Control Commission has collaborated with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to improve enforcement in the region, but it is equally important that it work with the authorities in Myanmar and Laos. Both countries are impoverished and therefore do not have the financial and military resources to properly monitor activity on the Mekong River. In the past, the authorities in Laos have destroyed poppy crops, but farmers have quickly replaced them.

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi’s government has not yet formulated a coherent drug policy. Moreover, the Mekong River ports most favored by drug traffickers, such as Hsop Lwe, are under rebel control and therefore beyond the reach of the authorities. It has also been reported that Myanmar’s military is complicit in the drug trade, and it works to their advantage if the ethnic rebels are addicted to drugs, reducing the incentive for interdiction. China has already joined forces with the authorities in Myanmar and Laos to patrol the Mekong River, but more collaboration is needed in areas such as intelligence and training, and resources must be provided to improve local enforcement capabilities.

During his presidential campaign, US President Donald Trump vowed to close loopholes in US postal service regulations that  Chinese criminals have been exploiting to traffic drugs in the US. Early in his presidency, Trump declared the opioid crisis a “national emergency” and also created a task force to combat addiction. Considering the importance the Trump administration has assigned to the opioid crisis, it will be interesting to see if he mentions the issue of trafficking during his visit to China in November.

Both China and the US have spent billions of dollars arresting thousands of drug dealers and smugglers, but have little to show for it. The two countries might stand a better chance of achieving their enforcement goals if they try to learn from each other and increase law-enforcement cooperation.

While China has been cooperating with the DEA on combating the drug trade, US officials believe Beijing should allocate more resources for the effort. The US, meanwhile, could help Myanmar and Laos tackle their drug lords by assisting with the Mekong Delta patrol effort. This might be a long shot but it warrants consideration.