In 2022, more than two-thirds of over 100,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, most commonly illicit fentanyl. Much of the illegally manufactured fentanyl comes from China, and in recent weeks, the American government has considered both retaliatory sanctions and cutting a deal with the Chinese government to secure cooperation on a joint fentanyl crackdown.
Fentanyl is a synthetic drug, meaning it’s made in labs and chemical plants, rather than derived from plants, like heroin or cannabis. China’s chemical plants have long cranked out fentanyl, which has flooded into North America via drug smuggling routes. But the Chinese government banned the manufacture of fentanyl in 2019, which has constrained supply.
In response to the ban, Chinese fentanyl manufacturers simply switched to producing fentanyl analogs, which are closely related substitutes. Many of these analogs aren’t banned, and while they’re not technically fentanyl, they can still produce similar highs and lead to overdose or death if misused. Chinese chemical companies also continue to make and sell the precursors to fentanyl, which other parties, like drug cartels, can use to make fentanyl itself.
China could use its law enforcement apparatuses to crack down on drug production, and in the past, it has done so to a limited extent. But more recently, Chinese law enforcement seems to have turned a blind eye to drug manufacturing. Reporting to Congress, Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institute reported that China “sees its counternarcotics enforcement, and more broadly its international law enforcement cooperation, as strategic tools that it can instrumentalize to achieve other objectives.”
For China, fentanyl and American casualties are a bargaining chip. In recent weeks, news outlets reported that China and the United States were mulling a deal that would see China crack down on fentanyl, but in exchange, the Chinese government has demanded concessions, including the lifting of sanctions related to the forced detainment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The American government has claimed that the treatment of Uyghurs amounts to genocide and an attempt to essentially erase Uyghur culture through the use of re-education camps.