A top Chinese drug official announced Thursday that Beijing authorities busted an illicit fentanyl factory and detained 19 people associated with the operation — but made no mention of two fentanyl kingpins who are wanted by the U.S. and presumably still on the loose.
Yu Haibin, director of precursor chemical control of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission, the country’s equivalent of the DEA, held a press conference to announce the recent anti-fentanyl raid. Yu said Chinese authorities acted on a tip from their American counterparts and seized 4.7 kilograms of fentanyl from a factory that was shipping the powerful synthetic opioid to customers in the U.S. using the online pseudonym “Diana.”
Earlier this week, Yu spoke exclusively to VICE News about fentanyl in China. While on Thursday he urged more cooperation between Chinese and U.S. authorities, he said previously that China has not arrested two men accused by the U.S. of manufacturing tons of fentanyl and supplying more than 100 dealers across the country, including at least one who sold fentanyl that contributed to the fatal overdose of an American teen. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein touted the indictments of the two men as a “major milestone” in the fight against fentanyl, but Yu said the U.S. hasn’t done enough to convince China to take action.
“China does not have solid evidence to show that they have violated Chinese law,” Yu told VICE News. “Our American counterparts haven't provided such evidence either. Therefore, we have not reached a point to indict or arrest these two suspects.”
Yu apparently did not discuss the situation with the two alleged kingpins at the press conference Thursday. He did say, however, that China wants to work more closely with officials in the U.S. and Mexico, where drug cartels have turned to fentanyl as a lucrative way to satisfy the demand for opioids by American consumers, to combat the illicit drug trade. Despite the conciliatory message, Yu still disputed claims by the DEA that Chinese traffickers are the main suppliers of fentanyl to North America.
“China doesn’t deny that shipments to the U.S. happen, but there isn’t the proof to show how much — whether it’s 20 percent or 80 percent,” Yu said, according to the Associated Press. He reportedly added that U.S. authorities have only sent him information about six shipments of illicit fentanyl from China in the past year.
Yu also blamed overprescription of painkillers and state-level marijuana legalization for causing the U.S. opioid crisis, echoing comments he made previously to VICE News. “As many states decriminalize marijuana, the public’s attitudes and trends of thinking toward drugs will also have a bad effect” on the fight against fentanyl and other opioids, Yu said, according to the AP.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua reported that the fentanyl factory raid occurred in Guangdong Province, near Hong Kong, and said police seized more than 20 kilograms of “other psychoactive substances,” along with 150 kilograms of raw materials used to manufacture drugs. The 19 arrests were made throughout November and December in the cities of Hebei, Jiangsu, Shanghai, and Zhejiang, according to Xinhua.
Fentanyl is now the leading cause of overdose death in the U.S., accounting for more than 19,000 of the 66,000 total drug-related fatalities last year, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Under pressure from the U.S., China banned production of multiple synthetic opioids related fentanyl earlier this year. Chineses authorities say they have arrested dozens of illicit traffickers, destroyed several underground labs, and seized tons of illegal drugs since 2016.
In a statement to VICE News, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said the agency “continues to work closely with our counterparts in China to address the opioid epidemic that has plagued the United States and other parts of the world.” Payne noted that the DEA “has sent several delegations of executives to China in recent months,” including a visit by the DEA’s then-acting director in January 2017.
But fentanyl still remains a sore subject, with President Donald Trump recently blaming China for sending a “flood of cheap and deadly” synthetic opioids to the U.S. After his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jingping in November, Trump said the two leaders agreed to make fentanyl a “top priority” but offered no specifics on what would be done.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson later said Xi “committed to taking new actions including agreements to control the export and movement of fentanyl precursors, sharing intelligence on drug trafficking, and exchanging trafficking information."