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China’s Role in Fentanyl Production Under Scrutiny as U.S. Charges Chinese Companies

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In a groundbreaking move, the U.S. Department of Justice has unsealed indictments charging four Chinese companies and eight of their employees with crimes related to the sale of chemicals used by Mexican cartels to manufacture fentanyl. This marks a significant step in increasing law enforcement scrutiny of China’s involvement in the overdose crisis plaguing the United States. The indictments specifically target the sales of precursor chemicals, which can be converted into fentanyl in clandestine labs in Mexico and then smuggled into the U.S.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has urged the Chinese government to take action against these shady chemical companies that allegedly supply the Sinaloa cartel with precursor chemicals. While previous cases involving China-based chemical suppliers have seen suspects evade arrest, two defendants, Qingzhou Wang and Yiyi Chen, were apprehended earlier this month in Fiji during a secret meeting with a U.S. agent. They have since been extradited to the United States to face justice.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has seized over 200 kilograms of precursor chemicals destined for the United States, enough to produce 50 kilograms of fentanyl. The Chinese Embassy has condemned the indictments, labeling them a “well-planned entrapment operation.” The embassy spokesperson accused the United States of attempting to shift blame and emphasized that the U.S. drug problem is its own responsibility.

The pressure on China to address its role in the fentanyl trade comes at a time of strained relations between the two countries. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently traveled to Beijing to discuss various issues, including the possibility of cooperation on countering the flow of precursor chemicals. While China has downplayed its role in the global fentanyl supply chain, it has occasionally cooperated with U.S. law enforcement in the past. However, cooperation ceased after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year.

Experts believe that small and mid-level players in China’s chemical and pharmaceutical industry are responsible for exporting precursor chemicals. The indicted Chinese companies are accused of using “masking molecules” to alter the chemical signatures of the precursors, making them harder to detect during shipment. They also provided instructions to traffickers on removing these molecules to manufacture fentanyl.

The indictments filed in New York follow the Justice Department’s previous criminal cases against Sinaloa cartel leaders and Chinese nationals involved in brokering deals for chemicals. Curbing the flow of fentanyl across the southern border has become a top priority for the Biden administration, which recently announced an extension of its campaign to interdict drug shipments and arrest smugglers.

Past indictments of Chinese nationals involved in drug trafficking have resulted in few arrests in the United States. However, in this case, federal investigators successfully apprehended two defendants through an undercover operation involving encrypted messaging, cryptocurrency payments, and secret meetings in Thailand and Fiji.

China’s reluctance to address its role in the fentanyl trade reflects broader tensions in the bilateral relationship. While China banned all variants of fentanyl in 2019, it has been less proactive in regulating precursor chemicals due to the lack of a domestic market for fentanyl. Some Chinese analysts argue that the Biden administration’s pressure on China over fentanyl is driven by domestic politics and an opportunity for the Republican Party to attack the Democrats.

As the fentanyl crisis continues to claim thousands of lives in the United States, the Biden administration is seeking to rally global support to pressure China into taking more substantial action. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently led a virtual meeting of a global coalition aiming to combat synthetic drugs, with over 80 countries participating. However, China has not yet indicated its intention to join the coalition, while Mexico has committed to participating.

The recent discovery of Protonitazene, a synthetic opioid even more potent and deadly than fentanyl, has raised alarm among authorities. Protonitazene is estimated to be three times stronger than fentanyl, which is already 50 times more potent than heroin. The drug has gained traction in the illicit drug market, with reports of it being added to heroin and street versions of opioid pills, leading to fatal overdoses. Unlike fentanyl, which can often be reversed with naloxone, Protonitazene may require multiple doses of naloxone to counteract its effects. The rise of Protonitazene further complicates the ongoing opioid crisis, highlighting the constant need for vigilance in identifying and addressing new and potent synthetic opioids in circulation.

Fentanyl now kills around 200 Americans every day. The issue of fentanyl is expected to be discussed further during Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s visit to Beijing. The United States imposed sanctions on Chinese and Mexican companies suspected of producing fentanyl pills earlier this year as part of its broader efforts to address the crisis. Restarting cooperation with China on narcotics control was one of the objectives raised during Secretary Blinken’s visit, but the recent indictments have complicated prospects for collaboration. It remains to be seen whether China will engage in meaningful cooperation on fentanyl-related issues with the United States.

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