Just a few days before US President Donald Trump departed on his 12-day trip to Asia, he declared a national public health emergency in response to the opioid crisis in America which has mushroomed out of control, claiming more than 60,000 lives in 2016 (with an even higher death toll anticipated in 2017).

This came close on the heels of US Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein’s announcement on October 17 that for the first time, the US had indicted major Chinese fentanyl traffickers who have been using the internet to sell fentanyl and fentanyl analogues to drug traffickers and individual customers in the United States. Rosenstein stated:

“These cases reflect a new and disturbing facet of the opioid crisis in America. More and more of our citizens are being killed by fentanyls, synthetic opioids that are often much stronger than heroin. A few grains of fentanyl can be a lethal dose. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that over 20,000 Americans were killed by fentanyl in 2016, and the number is rising at a dramatic rate. Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues are coming into the country in numerous ways, including shipments from factories in China directly to US customers who purchased it on the internet.

“The Department of Justice is playing a leading role in these efforts. In July, we announced charges against over 120 individuals for their roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics. We also announced the takedown of the largest marketplace on the Darknet, where fentanyl and other deadly drugs were sold. We have created an Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit to pursue opioid-related health care fraud. We are aligning our resources and training to better target and prosecute opioid-related crimes. We recently announced US$58.8 million in grant funding to combat the opioid epidemic. These are only a few of the ways that the Department is attacking the opioid crisis at every level.” 

The two Chinese nationals – Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang – were indicted by grand juries in Mississippi and North Dakota for separate conspiracies to distribute large quantities of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues into the US. Both individuals were designated as Consolidated Priority Organization Targets to be charged with violations of US laws.

According to Rosenstein, Yan distributed many illegal drugs – including synthetic cathinones and cannabinoids, as well as synthetic opioids – over a period of at least six years. Rosenstein said:

“[Yan] operated at least two chemical plants in China that were capable of producing ton quantities of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Yan monitored legislation and law enforcement activities in the United States and China, modifying the chemical structure of the fentanyl analogues he produced to evade prosecution in the United States.

“[US] federal agents identified more than 100 distributors of synthetic opioids involved with Yan’s manufacturing and distribution networks.  They intercepted packages mailed from Yan’s Internet pharmaceutical companies, seizing multiple kilograms of suspected acetyl fentanyl, potentially enough for thousands of lethal doses.”

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (right) and Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson hold a news conference to announce new legislation to stop deadly fentanyl and other opiate substances from entering the United States, at the Justice Department in Washington, on October 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Gripas
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (right) and Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson hold a news conference to announce new legislation to stop deadly fentanyl and other opiate substances from entering the United States, at the Justice Department in Washington, on October 17, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Yuri Gripas

Yan was indicted in the Southern District of Mississippi on September 7, 2017, on two counts of conspiracy to manufacture and distribute multiple controlled substances, including fentanyl, and seven counts of manufacturing and distributing the drugs in specific instances.

At the same time, US investigators discovered that Jian Zhang operated at least four known labs in China, and advertised and sold fentanyl to US customers over the Internet. Said Rosenstein:

“Zhang’s organization would send orders of fentanyl and other illicit drugs, and pill presses, stamps, and dies used to shape fentanyl into pills, to customers in the United States through the mail or international parcel delivery services. Agents determined that Zhang sent many thousands of these packages since January 2013.

“Zhang and eight others were indicted on Sept. 20, 2017.  The indictment charges a conspiracy to distribute fentanyl and fentanyl analogues in at least 11 states in the United States between January 2013 and August 2016, a conspiracy to import the drugs into the United States from Canada and China, a money laundering conspiracy, an international money laundering conspiracy, and operation of a continuing criminal enterprise.” 

Rosenstein was very direct about Chinese involvement, stating that:

“Chinese fentanyl distributors are using the Internet to sell fentanyl directly to US customers. They use multiple identities to disguise their activities and their shipments and to obscure the trail of profits going back to China. They take advantage of the fact that the fentanyl molecule can be altered in numerous ways to create a fentanyl analogue that is not listed as illegal under US and Chinese law. When regulators are able to identify the new fentanyl and make it illegal, the distributors quickly switch to a new, unlisted fentanyl analogue.”

Although Rosenstein said that the US is “working closely with our colleagues in China and other countries to stem the flow of illegal fentanyl into the US” it is clear that President Trump expects China to do more.

Appearing on a phone-in session broadcast nationwide on C-SPAN on November 4, Abraham Denmark, director of the Washington, DC-based Wilson Center’s Asia Program, responded to two questions from this commentator during a detailed discussion of the goals and significance of President Trump’s trip to Asia.

Denmark agreed that this is an issue looming over President Trump ahead of his arrival in Beijing. “It absolutely is,” said Denmark, describing it as high on the agenda. He went on to describe the awkward position that China has found itself in as a result of the stronger stance adopted by the US in this regard.

Denmark said that Trump will certainly press China to cooperate more fully with the US, and that this cooperation was “in their mutual interest to fight these drugs coming out of China.” He also said that China had taken a very hard line against drugs, but that despite this hard line position, any rigid enforcement of these measures was proving to be very difficult for them.

Asked whether or not the timing of the two indictments of Chinese residents was simply a coincidence or an actual attempt by the US Department of Justice to send a strong message to China, Denmark did not respond.

However, Bonnie Glaser, senior advisor for Asia and director of the China Power Project at the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the timing was certainly worth noting. “US and China just had bilateral talks on this matter – likely not coincidental,” said Glaser via email.

She added: “Given that President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a national emergency, there should be more cooperation between US and Chinese law enforcement agencies. I don’t know if Trump has any plans to raise it with Xi Jinping.”