The opioid epidemic in the United States has taken a deadly turn with the influx of the synthetic opioid fentanyl. The drug is 50-100 times more potent than morphine and overdose deaths have skyrocketed as a result. The DEA estimates that 90% of fentanyl originates from China. Chinese companies produce precursor chemicals that are then processed into fentanyl by Mexican drug cartels and smuggled into the US.
In 2021, over 107,000 Americans died from overdoses. Fentanyl poisoning is now the leading cause of death for Americans aged 18-45. With so many lives lost, fingers are pointing at China as the source of this scourge. But China maintains the fentanyl crisis is an American domestic issue unfairly blamed on them. This disagreement over fentanyl’s origins is straining relations between the world’s two biggest economies.
Parallels Drawn to China’s “Century of Humiliation”
Some Americans believe China is purposefully flooding the US with fentanyl as retribution for the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century. Back then, Britain smuggled opium grown in India into China, getting much of the population addicted. China’s defeat in the Opium Wars led to a “century of humiliation” with concessions made to foreign powers.
Now some see China weaponizing fentanyl against the US using the same tactics. However, the situation today is more complicated. While China’s role is significant, conditions in both countries allowed the crisis to emerge. Still, the trauma of the Opium Wars very likely influences China’s perspective and actions today.
How Fentanyl Production and Demand Aligned in China and the US
Fentanyl was created for legitimate medical uses but lax regulations and oversight in China led to mass production of the dangerous drug. Precursor chemicals face fewer restrictions there compared to the West. At the same time, prescription opioids became widely overprescribed in the US, creating massive demand.
As access to prescription opioids decreased, illicit fentanyl filled the void. Chinese supply and American demand aligned, creating a perfect storm. When the US government cracked down on prescriptions, those addicted turned to cheaper, easier to obtain fentanyl smuggled from Mexico. Overdose deaths continued climbing as flows increased.
Is China Actively Enabling the Crisis?
China insists they have harsh anti-drug laws, even the death penalty for trafficking. But evidence suggests Chinese companies are still actively supplying precursor chemicals. Some even receive government subsidies while exporting fentanyl ingredients globally.
Chinese manufacturers sell precursors to Mexican cartels who traffic massive quantities into the US. Chinese money launderers also facilitate clearing the profits. While China likely did not intend to poison the US, the conditions allowed targeting the crisis for their benefit. Even as relations strained, China exploited vulnerabilities in the US emerging from demand for opioids.
Steps to Resolve the Crisis and Repair Relations
There are no easy solutions, but steps can be taken to combat this epidemic and the damage it has caused. First, fentanyl analogs can be permanently classified as Schedule 1 controlled substances. Second, designating Mexican cartels as terrorist groups could facilitate military intervention. Third, decreasing US demand through treatment and prevention programs is key.
Complex dynamics between China, Mexico, and US demand sustain the crisis. Historical grievances magnify tensions, but pragmatism is needed. The US must also address vulnerabilities that allowed the crisis to emerge and worsen. Resolution requires cooperation, overcoming the past, and strategic action to eliminate flows into the US.