After meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 meeting earlier this month, U.S. President Donald Trump praised China for considering imposing the death penalty on illicit producers of fentanyl – an opioid up to 100 times more potent than morphine with a lethal dose of just two milligrams in most people.
When fentanyl, which is used as a pain medication but has a high potential for abuse, was highlighted during a meeting between the leaders of the United States and China in Buenos Aires earlier this month, some analysts in China saw it as another one of Washington's tactics to embarrass China.
Others, however, note that reaching out to China to contain its deadliest export to the United States may not be enough if the country doesn’t ease its dependence on painkillers.
Xi has promised to criminalize the sale of deadly fentanyl to the United States, according to Trump, who said it has the possibility of being “a game changer” in easing the fentanyl overdose epidemic in the United States.
“Last year over 77,000 people died from Fentanyl [in the US]. If China cracks down on this ‘horror drug,’ using the Death Penalty for distributors and pushers, the results will be incredible!” Trump tweeted last week.
China is the biggest source of illicit fentanyl-like substances in the United States and their flows have persisted in recent years through China’s vast, but poorly monitored and weakly regulated chemical and pharmaceutical industries, according to a report released last month by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Making matters worse, Beijing schedules reviews of chemicals one by one – a slow and ineffective procedure, which allows room for illicit manufacturers to create new substances faster than they can be controlled, the report added.
In other words, even though China has banned nearly 40 new fentanyl-like substances after years of pressure from U.S. officials, opioid chemists can still concoct new narcotics to get around customs blacklists.
An uphill battle
That has turned Sino-U.S. counter-narcotic cooperation into an uphill battle.
An industry watcher in Beijing, who spoke with VOA on condition of anonymity, said concocting new clones to skirt the ban is easy and quick.
"China may not necessarily be the major source of [fentanyl] flows to the U.S. [Flows from China] may not outsize those from Latin American countries because any [opioid chemist] is capable of making it. Those in the U.S. may be able to easily produce it in their own garages," the industry watcher said.
A more efficient way to combat the illicit drug would be for both countries to impose a "white list" of fentanyl substances so that most illicit derivatives would also be banned, he said.
For example, the industry watcher added, only licensed pharmaceuticals would be allowed to manufacture an approved list of fentanyl-related substances for medical use, which would make it easy for Chinese authorities to monitor their flows given that China’s regulation of the pharmaceutical industry is stricter than the chemical industry.
Addressing regulatory loopholes
The United States, for its part, is urging Beijing to consider establishing fentanyl as its own class of controlled substances so that all known and future fentanyl analogues are automatically controlled in China.
Or China should commit to targeting U.S.-bound exports of substances controlled in the United States, but not in China, as such all substances controlled by U.S. regulators would also be automatically illegal in China, according to the review commission.
But Ming Xia, a professor of political science and global affairs at City University of New York, doubted if incentives are strong enough for China to fight the United State’s fentanyl war unless the controlled substances become a lethal addiction among its own youth.
“For now, China only gains from its chemical exports, but no cost to pay for. China may consider the abuse of such chemical exports none of its business. Therefore, China may not be strongly motivated to contain its [fentanyl] exports,” Xia said.
The New York-based professor, however, urged China to take the drug war seriously because its own young people may one day become addicted.
He also urges the United States to strengthen its oversight on the flow of the controlled substance and cut down its huge dependence on painkillers, which makes it a natural destination of opioid imports in great quantities with an increased potential for overdose or abuse.
Since the G-20 meeting, China hasn’t yet announced any concrete measures or policy reforms to tackle existing legal loopholes and improve regulatory efficiency or oversight of chemical productions.
Tougher restrictions on chemical exports are believed to have a negative impact on China’s future economic growth.
Given the issue’s sensitivity, two narcotics experts in Beijing with the People’s Public Security University of China have declined VOA’s requests for comments.
China, however, is cooperating with U.S. law enforcement agencies in their efforts to take legal actions against known Chinese drug traffickers.
A group of 21 people recently pleaded guilty in a court in Xingtai, Hebei, over their illicit trade of drugs, including fentanyl by courier or post to countries such as the United States and Canada.