As Washington and Beijing lumber toward a deal on trade, a look at why little has changed on another key front is an important reminder that agreements with China often follow a predictable pattern: big breakthrough, maybe even a Rose Garden announcement, followed by … not much.
A few days after the United States and China announced on Dec. 1 that Chinese President Xi Jinping had vowed that his country would stem the supply of the powerful opioid fentanyl flowing into the United States, President Trump tweeted that “if China cracks down on this ‘horror drug,’ using the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers, the results will be incredible!”
Well, so far the results have been far from incredible.
In fact, all indications are that there have been no results. “Nothing has changed since Dec. 1,” said a senior administration official who was involved in talks and spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the subject. Fentanyl and its many analogues continue to flood the United States. On Jan. 31, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials announced the largest seizure of fentanyl powder and pills ever — a 254-pound shipment in a truck hauling cucumbers from Mexico. The shipment, law enforcement officials noted, was enough to administer lethal doses to 100 million Americans. The senior administration official said it was assumed that the shipment originated in China, which is the main source of the fentanyl coming into the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
There are several reasons China is not helping.
First, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, China doesn’t do a good job of regulating its chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Producers have close relations with local Communist Party officials whose main focus is on keeping the economy humming, and not on the health and well-being of Americans thousands of miles away. If given the choice between shuttering a profit-making narcotics syndicate and forgoing tax revenue and jobs or letting it slide, many officials in China choose to let it slide.
Second, despite Xi’s promises to do more, there has been no serious push from the top of the Communist Party to break this logjam. Fentanyl is hard to stop because most countries, including China and the United States, place specific chemicals on a control list. All you have to do to keep a fentanyl-like drug off the list is to tweak a few molecules and, voila, you’ve made another (legal) variety. So even though China has added more than 35 analogues to its control list over the past two years, other fentanyl-like substances continue to be made legally in China.
To remedy this, the senior administration official said the United States has asked China to establish fentanyl and all of its derivatives as their own class of drug, thereby making any new analogues illegal as well. But China so far has declined to do so.
Behind these bureaucratic snafus, however, lies something deeper.
For one, inside China’s system there’s no shortage of historical schadenfreude about the fact that the United States is dealing with a drug epidemic from China, almost two centuries after China dealt with an opioid crisis from the West. During the 19th century, Western traders brought tons of Indian and Turkish opium to China’s shores. The British even fought a war with China over the right to sell the drugs in China. While the British dominated the trade, American merchants, including the grandfather of President Franklin Roosevelt, accounted for about 25 percent of the traffic. At the time, both British and American merchants lectured their Chinese interlocutors that if they wanted to control opium imports into China, they first needed to control demand.
On Dec. 3, two days after Trump announced his fentanyl deal with Xi, the state-run Global Times repurposed that line, arguing that only ifthe United States cut its dependence on drugs would the problem be solved. The Global Times also hypothesized that white Americans were more susceptible to fentanyl than “other ethnic groups,” a claim that Westerners made about Chinese addiction to opium 150 years ago.
In addition to historical baggage, huge gaps persist in the policing cultures of the two nations. American law enforcement officials complain that China’s police are not crime fighters but rather protectors of the Chinese Communist Party. Chinese police gripe that U.S. law enforcement is not sensitive to China’s “core interests.”
Tensions date back to 1990, when, following the Tiananmen Square crackdown on student-led protesters, a federal judge in California allowed a convicted Chinese drug dealer to stay in the United States because the drug trafficker feared execution back home.
In recent years, the United States has frustrated Beijing’s attempts to expand Xi’s crackdown on corruption to the United States. In 2017, U.S. authorities caught a band of Chinese security officers sent secretly to the United States to menace Chinese dissident billionaire Guo Wengui. A year earlier, the United States refused to send back to China the brother of a senior Chinese official who had been arrested on corruption charges in Beijing.
“There’s no love lost between the two sides,” a senior law enforcement officer involved in international cooperation told me. “So it’s no surprise we’ve got no movement [on fentanyl] from the PRC.”