Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “Clandestine Chinese labs manufacture and export their own meth and other synthetic drugs around the world. In 2013, the police dismantled nearly 390 meth labs in China, more than in any other country in the region, according to a United Nations report released in May. These manufacturers have flourished in part because the country’s huge chemical industry is weakly regulated and poorly monitored, officials say, making it easy for criminal syndicates to divert chemicals with legitimate uses in making medicine, fertilizer and pesticides into the production of new and dangerous drugs. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“According to the Australian Crime Commission’s latest Illicit Drugs Report, released last month, China was the primary source of illicit amphetamine-type drugs detected at the Australian border in 2013 to 2014. In 2013, the Australian police made their largest methamphetamine seizure ever, 1,300 pounds discovered in a shipping container from China with a street value of $450 million. Since then, Australian authorities have found meth in Chinese shipments of garden hoses, handbags, lamps, aquarium pebbles, metal shafts, kayaks and 70 porcelain toilets. “We’ve seen it all, ” said Detective Superintendent Scott Cook, who commands the Organized Crime Squad in the state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney. “There’s absolutely no limit in terms of how far they go to import drugs. They’re ingenious.”

Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Hashish, China Not so Special blog ; Cannabis History ; Opium Trade in China

China: the Main Source of Tweeked Synthetic Drugs

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: Chinese “labs have also figured out how to stay one step ahead of laws banning illicit synthetic drugs simply by tweaking a few molecules, creating new and not-yet-illegal drugs. Since 2008, the number of new psychoactive substances reported to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has soared more than eightfold to 541, far outpacing the 244 drugs controlled under global conventions. Often sold as “legal highs” and “research chemicals, ” these drugs are designed specifically to exploit an outdated international legal framework. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“Some countries, including the United States, have banned whole ranges of chemicals that mimic illegal drugs, but many nations do not. The European Union in particular, with its open borders and disparate drug laws, provides ample opportunity for smuggling contraband. “Drug traffickers take advantage of this, ” said Soren Pedersen, a spokesman for the European police agency Europol. “As soon as a substance becomes illegal in Germany, they can just divert it to Denmark, Sweden or Austria.”

“Several American officials said China was the primary source for new synthetic drugs. “Hands down China is No. 1, ” said a federal law enforcement official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. “I know prosecutors in Arizona, Virginia, Minnesota, ” said Carla Freedman, an assistant district attorney in New York who in 2013 prosecuted a ring trafficking drugs from Shanghai. “We’re seeing cases nationwide and ground zero always seems to be China.”

Zhang Lei: China’s Fairly Open Major Drug Maker

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “For more than a decade, Zhang Lei, a 39-year-old Shanghai chemist, also known as Eric Chang, manufactured thousands of pounds of synthetic drugs for buyers in 57 countries, earning about $30 million from shipments to the United States alone, American officials say. In Britain he was known for producing substances consumed by young ravers. The Australian police accused him of shipping ingredients for crystal meth to an artist in Melbourne. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“Though wanted by Interpol since 2011, Mr. Zhang made little effort to conceal his identity or the nature of his work. He handed out business cards with his real name, address and phone number. A photo of crystalline white powder adorns a Twitter page with his name that links to his company website. To stay ahead of local and international laws banning new synthetic drugs, his company, China Enriching Chemistry, constantly developed new chemical variations for export, American officials said.

“The company’s website, for instance, advertises a substance called “Eric-2, ” a substitute for mephedrone that costs $1,500 for 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. “It falls outside all illegal laws currently regarding research chemicals, ” the website boasts in slightly flawed English. The Chinese police knew about Mr. Zhang for years, and finally arrested him in 2013 on charges of producing ecstasy. Last July, the United States Treasury Department sanctioned Mr. Zhang, his company and three associates under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which froze their American assets.

“Yet Mr. Zhang’s company is still thriving. The company’s Shanghai headquarters remains open, and its English-language website, a veritable Amazon of synthetic highs, promises three-day international delivery and full refunds if customs officials seize any shipments. On a recent visit to the company’s headquarters in a drab office park here, Mr. Zhang’s mother, Wang Guoying, 65, whose assets in the United States have been frozen, sat at a large wooden desk. Photos of Mr. Zhang and his son were displayed on a nearby bookshelf next to glass beakers and bottles of champagne and Glenfiddich Scotch.

“Although a product brochure in the office listed mephedrone, Ms. Wang denied that the company ever sold illegal drugs. “What American buyers did with the chemicals they bought from my son can’t be blamed on him, ” she said. “We’re a legitimate company. If we weren’t would we still be up and running?”

Real-Life Breaking Bads in China

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere: “Walter White lives, at least in the eyes of the police in Wuhan. Law enforcement officials in the central Chinese city have arrested a chemistry professor who is suspected of producing and selling hundreds of pounds of a psychoactive drug to overseas buyers, according to a Xinhua report. The report said the police had announced the man’s surname, Zhang, and the fact that he worked at a “famous” university in Wuhan. Xinhua called him “China’s real-life Walter White, ” a reference to the protagonist of “Breaking Bad, ” the popular American television series that ended in 2013. In the show, Mr. White, played by Bryan Cranston, is a high school chemistry teacher in New Mexico who, after a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer, begins producing high-grade methamphetamine to earn money for his family and conducts his criminal activities under the alias Heisenberg. [Source: Edward Wong, Sinosphere, New York Times, July 7, 2015]

“Mr. Zhang hit on the idea of producing a psychoactive drug during a stint as a visiting scholar in Australia, Xinhua reported. At that time, he found that some psychoactive drugs were in high demand there but hard to get. He then decided to make those drugs on his return to China, the report said, citing the police. Mr. Zhang is suspected of selling at least 193 kilograms, or 425 pounds, of drugs from March to November 2014 to buyers in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, which earned him millions of dollars, Xinhua reported.

“Mr. Zhang founded a company in 2005 to produce medical coating and solvent, but that was a front for drug production, the report said. He recruited people to help him make the drugs and sell them by mail, it also said. The police first stumbled onto the drug operation in November, 2014 when local customs agents checking packages bound for overseas addresses found white powder in at least nine parcels from one mailer, Xinhua reported. The powder was methylone, a heavily restricted psychoactive drug. Customs officials and police officers then raided Mr. Zhang’s lab in the Jiangxia district of Wuhan, a provincial capital on the Yangtze River. The raid was on June 17, and it resulted in the arrests of eight people and the seizure of about 45 pounds of drugs, Xinhua reported.

“Mr. Zhang is not the first person to be labeled a Chinese Walter White by news organizations and commentators here. In May, a former chemistry teacher, Lu Yong, was arrested in Shaanxi Province for working with a gang leader to produce and sell methcathinone, which is similar to methamphetamine, according to Chinese news reports. One publication, The Paper, said that Mr. Lu had lost his sight in a chemical experiment explosion in 2007. In October 2014, police officers in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, arrested a man with the surname of Xu after raids on two homes that were used to produce methamphetamine. The man was a laid-off chemical factory worker who was nicknamed Professor Xu after traveling around the country teaching drug gangs how to make methamphetamine and selling the raw materials for its production.

China, a Major Source of Precursors for Synthetic Drugs

According to AFP: “China is believed to be one of the main manufacturers of synthetic drugs — including opioids such as fentanyl — which have been blamed for public health crises in the United States, Canada and Australia among other countries. The drugs are readily available for purchase online from manufacturers in China, who constantly tweak their formulas to keep the them one step ahead of laws that ban the products based on their chemical composition. [Source: Agence France-Presse, March 27, 2017]

Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times’s Sinosphere: ““International law enforcement officials say that China is a leading producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, as well as the materials used to make them. Those materials can easily be ordered online in China. Most of the materials that Mexican drug traffickers use to make methamphetamine come from China, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Officials from several nations say the Chinese authorities generally tolerate the presence of those drug businesses in their country. [Source: Edward Wong, Sinosphere, New York Times, July 7, 2015]

Julie Makinen wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “American authorities have previously criticized China for failing to do enough to stop the production and export of drugs and their precursor materials. “In 2013, U.S. prosecutors named the boss of one drug-making company, China Enriching Chemistry, in a federal indictment alleging the sale of banned substances in the U.S., but China and the United States do not have an extradition treaty. The boss was arrested in China, but the company has continued to operate. [Source: Julie Makinen, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2016]

““China has a very big chemical industry, and makes a lot of precursors that might be used for drugs but not all of them are being used for making drugs, ” Hu said. “If they violated Chinese law, then we took measures to punish them, and some staff.” “In October, the Chinese government restricted the export of alpha-PVP, the key ingredient in a notorious stimulant called flakka, and 115 other chemical substances used to make synthetic drugs but found to have no known legitimate uses. U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Raynette Savoy Kornickey praised the move, saying that “by cutting off the supply of alpha-PVP at its origin, we hope to halt its flow into the United States.” She called China "a major supplier."

Obtaining Precursors for Synthetic Drugs Online From China

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: China’s chemical factories and drug traffickers have turned the nation into a leading producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, as well as the compounds used to manufacture them, according to seizure and trafficking route data compiled by American and international law enforcement agencies. China is now the source of a majority of the ingredients needed to manufacture methamphetamine by Mexican drug traffickers, who produce 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.[Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“As governments around the world have stepped up regulation of these so-called precursor chemicals, the Mexican cartels have increasingly turned to Chinese chemical factories. “They just didn’t see what was in it for them to look into their own industries exporting these chemicals, ” said Jorge Guajardo, the former Mexican ambassador to China.

“Mr. Guajardo, Mexico’s ambassador from 2007 to 2013, said his efforts to persuade Chinese authorities to restrict the export of these chemicals, which are banned in Mexico, came to naught. Instead, he said, Chinese officials said the problem was best handled by Mexican customs agents or claimed that Mexico’s written requests for assistance had used the incorrect typeface or were improperly translated into Chinese.

““In all my time there, the Chinese never showed any willingness to cooperate on stemming the flow of precursors into Mexico, ” he said in a telephone interview.

Chinese Government Often Hinders More Than Helps International Drug Fighting Efforts

Dan Levin wrote in the New York Times: “Chinese officials say the government is committed to international cooperation against drug traffickers. “We aim to help and support other countries in any way we can, ” Liu Yuejin, the assistant minister of public security, has said publicly. In response to faxed questions, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied any problems in law enforcement cooperation with Mexico. [Source: Dan Levin, New York Times, June 21, 2015]

“But Hao Wei, a member of the ministry’s Committee for Prevention of Synthetic Drug Abuse, said traffickers would always find loopholes. “I really don’t think only governments should be blamed for this, ” he said in a telephone interview. “Instead of pointing fingers at each other, we should confront the problem and deal with it in a comprehensive and balanced way.”

China has responded to mounting international pressure with several high-profile busts. In April, officials announced the arrest of more than 133,000 people and seizure of 43 tons of illegal narcotics during a five-month antidrug sweep that ended in March.

“But experts say these actions have failed to significantly impede traffickers. “China likes everyone to think they’re in control of everything, ” said a United Nations official, who asked not to be identified to avoid political repercussions. ”But at the end of the day they have an enormous chemical industry and the state doesn’t have the capacity to monitor and control it.”

“The United States said in a report last year that China was taking steps to join global efforts against illegal drugs but added that those efforts are “hindered by cumbersome internal approval processes” that limit the ability of American investigators to work with their Chinese counterparts. In March, the Drug Enforcement Administration resorted to an elaborate ruse to lure one of the world’s top synthetic drug manufacturers, a Chinese citizen named Tian Haijun, to Los Angeles to arrest him.“

China, a Major Player in the U.S.’s Fentanyl Epidemic

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: An online pharmacy advertising itself as a seller of “high purity, real pure” fentanyl still responds right away to potential customers. “Which products do you want to buy, ” a salesperson replied within a minute to an inquiry in English on WhatsApp, the encrypted messaging service. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, December 1, 2019]

“Until recently, much of the illicit fentanyl that found its way to the United States came like this: easily ordered online from a source in China and seamlessly shipped by international delivery companies, including the United States Postal Service. Fentanyl sourced from China accounted for 97 percent of the drug seized from international mail services by United States law enforcement in both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“China’s harshest critics have even accused the country of deliberately flooding the market as revenge for the Opium Wars of the 19th century, though there is no evidence of that.” For their part, Chinese like to point out that the market for fentanyl has always been largely American and appears insatiable. The Chinese also cite statistics from the United States Customs and Border Protection showing that of the 536.8 kilograms of fentanyl seized between October 2018 and March 2019, only 5.87 kilograms, or just over 1 percent, was shipped from China.

The fentanyl crisis has exploded in the U.S. in the late 2010s: In the 2019 fiscal year that ended in October, American customs agents seized 1,154 kilograms of fentanyl, or 2,545 pounds, compared with 31 kilograms, or 70 pounds, in 2015. Fentanyl is cheap, easily synthesized in a lab and more addictive than heroin. That means the financial rewards will remain high enough to entice those willing to break the law, especially in a large and poorly regulated chemical industry like China’s. The scale of China’s under-regulated industries allows for minimally trained technicians with access to the proper inputs to follow simple synthesis steps while avoiding oversight, ” the authors of a new report on fentanyl by the RAND Corporation wrote. “China’s pharmaceutical and industrial chemical industries are large and beyond the reach of U.S. law enforcement.”

Liu Yong, a Chinese man sentenced to death but reduced to life for good behavior in December 2019, according to the New York Times.”led an illicit network of labs that produced and shipped packages of fentanyl to American users who placed orders online through a dealer simply known as “Diana, ” according to the Chinese and American officials. “The network included one lab and two distribution centers in Shanghai and the neighboring province, Jiangsu. They were shut down, and 12 kilograms of fentanyl was seized as part of the investigation. In November 2016, Liu began advertising drugs through the internet using companies they had registered for pharmaceutical sales operations, according to the officials and the court’s ruling.” [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, November 9, 2019]

China Cracks Down on Fentanyl Distribution

After years of American pressure, China finally began taking steps to shut off the illicit supply of deadly synthetic opioids. After Xi Jinping met U.S. President Donald Trump in Buenos Aires at the Group of 20 summit in late 2018, the White House released a statement saying that “President Xi, in a wonderful humanitarian gesture, has agreed to designate fentanyl as a controlled substance. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, December 1, 2019]

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “Some six months later, China did exactly that. As a result, the large, freewheeling and mostly unregulated fentanyl industry that had operated in a gray area of Chinese law appears to have stopped selling the drug for export — or at least as openly as hundreds of suppliers once did.

“Some of the distributors, who still can be easily found in online searches, claimed to be complying with the new rules banning the overseas sale of synthetic opioids. Others appeared to have shut down their operations, disconnecting numbers which had previously reached salespeople offering to mail the drugs to the United States — no questions asked.

“China’s new focus on shutting down the trade has meant shipments of fentanyl to the United States have declined significantly in the last year, according to Chinese officials, citing figures from the United States Customs and Border Protection agency. The American agency did not dispute that drop. “China’s control over fentanyl substances is becoming stricter and stricter, ” said Yu Haibin, the deputy director of the country’s National Narcotics Control Commission.

“Following a tightening of drug controls that took effect May 1, the government put 91 manufacturers and 234 individual distributors under “strict supervision, ” warning them not to export fentanyl or related drugs, like carfentanil, according to a government report released in September. It claimed to have increased inspections and arrests in 13 cities and regions where pharmaceutical companies have proliferated.

“One of them is Xingtai, an industrial city about 250 miles south of Beijing, where a court earlier this month convicted nine people of smuggling fentanyl into the United States. The convictions capped an investigation that began in 2017 with a tip from American drug-enforcement agents. The accused ringleader received a suspended death sentence; two others were sentenced to life in prison.

“The case was one of three investigations in which the Chinese authorities have been cooperating with American law enforcement, Chinese officials said. The investigations have come after a torrent of criticism that Chinese officials were lax toward — or even complicit in — a major supply chain fueling the fentanyl crisis in America.

China Plugs Loopholes That Facilitate the Fentanyl Trade

Steven Lee Myers wrote in the New York Times: “China has some of the strictest drug laws in the world, allowing capital punishment against major producers and traffickers. Until recently, however, loopholes in legislation and enforcement allowed the production of synthetic opioids like fentanyl to skirt the attention of the authorities. In China, as in the United States, fentanyl can be legally prescribed and is used as an anesthetic in surgery and for severe pain relief. Because of its potency, its production is strictly controlled by law. Until 2019, however, China’s laws did not cover new, chemical variants of fentanyl that were constantly being produced to sidestep existing legal restrictions. Manufacturers could simply adjust the chemical structure slightly and create a new analogue of the drug, not yet banned. In this gray area of the law, production in China soared. “It’s just like water: They’re finding the gaps and the cracks, ” Bryce Pardo, an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation and a lead author on the organization’s report, said in an interview. [Source: Steven Lee Myers, New York Times, December 1, 2019]

“In April, the Chinese government moved to plug those legal holes. It announced it would place all variants of fentanyl — as a class — on the list of controlled substances, rather than individually adding each new version of the drug to the banned list after it had hit the streets. With the export controls that are applied to drugs on the list, the fentanyl variants that had fallen into the legal gray area before were now explicitly banned from being sold abroad.

“Tang Jianbin, a lawyer in Beijing who specializes in criminal drug cases, said the move was a significant concession to American demands. The country even had to pass a new law allowing it to designate the entire class of synthetic opioids as controlled substances. “This legal adjustment is an innovation in our country, ” Mr. Tang said. China made this move in the middle of its protracted trade war with the United States, and it may have been done to help resolve the acrimonious — and continuing — dispute.

“Drugs entering China from the West have a dark historical resonance in the country, which is still bitter over the forced importation of opium by the British in the 19th century, the cause of two wars and the ceding of Hong Kong. And Chinese officials have long bristled at any criticism they were negligent on the law enforcement front. and were always quick to point out that fentanyl was a uniquely American problem. Opioid use — and abuse — is far higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and there are plenty of other sources of the drug beyond China.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2021

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