That may now be about to change: The Beijing government, fulfilling a promise that President Xi Jinping made to President Trump in December , has announced it will ban a broad category of fentanyl-like drugs — estimated at more than 1,400 variants — as opposed to the 25 substances China had previously deigned to prohibit in piecemeal fashion. China appears to have acted as part of the broader negotiation with the Trump administration over trade issues; but Beijing also faced pressure from Congress, where Sens. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.) are co-sponsoring a bill that would condition foreign countries’ access to U.S. aid and Export-Import Bank loans on cooperation with U.S. anti-fentanyl efforts.
Many have noted the historical irony in opioid imports from China fueling an addiction crisis in the West: It’s a role reversal from the Victorian Age, when China faced an opium scourge fueled by British drug traders. While of academic interest, this history was of no contemporary policy relevance and certainly no kind of reason for the current rulers in Beijing to have turned a blind eye to the problem for as long as they did. Let it be remembered that the Xi government pledged to help during the waning days of the Obama administration, which announced on Sept. 3, 2016, that there would be “enhanced measures in conjunction with the Chinese government to combat the supply of fentanyl and its analogues to the United States.” Nothing happened.
Of course, supply interdiction cannot succeed without robust anti-addiction public-health measures in the United States (which the Trump administration has failed to fund sufficiently). There are inherent challenges to controlling supply: China’s 160,000 chemical firms are hard to regulate, and fentanyl is highly concentrated, so a lot of the drug can be shipped in relatively small containers. Also, it’s difficult legally to ban a substance that can be altered to produce a slightly different compound without changing its narcotic properties. However, China is very good at policing what its Communist leaders really want to police: free speech and disfavored religions, for example.
Compared to its immediate predecessor, the Trump administration has essentially extracted a better-quality promise from China. Now the task is to hold Beijing to it.