U.S. and China to hold high-level talks aimed at curbing the fentanyl crisis

BEIJING — The United States and China will hold formal high-level talks in Beijing next week aimed at limiting the flow of fentanyl into the U.S., senior Chinese officials tell NBC News, resuming counternarcotics cooperation that was suspended for more than a year even as America struggles with what has been called its worst drug crisis in history.

China — which U.S. officials say is the primary source of the precursor chemicals synthetized into fentanyl by drug cartels in Mexico — has promised greater cooperation with the U.S. on combating the crisis. It also continues to deflect blame for it.

“I believe through this collaboration, both countries can enhance their law enforcement capabilities,” Yu Haibin, one of China’s top narcotics control officials, said in an exclusive interview this week. “We will achieve remarkable results in combating fentanyl substances, including precursors.”

But he also repeated China’s argument that America’s fentanyl problem stems from the public’s unrelenting demand for it.

“The crisis in the U.S. is not manufactured by China; rather, its roots lie within the United States itself,” said Yu, who is deputy director general of the Ministry of Public Security’s Narcotics Control Bureau and deputy secretary-general of the National Narcotics Control Commission.

Chinese officials did not go into detail about the upcoming counternarcotics meeting in Beijing, which has not yet been publicly announced. The White House declined to confirm the meeting.

The U.S. has accused China of complicity in its fentanyl crisis, which together with other opioids has killed hundreds of thousands in recent years and destroyed communities across the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80,000 people in the U.S. died from overdoses involving opioids in 2021 alone, with almost 88% of those cases involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

The meeting early next week of a newly launched U.S.-China counternarcotics working group is part of delicate efforts to improve relations between the world’s two biggest economies, which in recent years have fallen to their lowest point in decades. The launch of the working group was one of the outcomes of the November meeting in California between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, their first encounter in a year.

China had made such talks contingent on the lifting of U.S. trade sanctions on a Chinese government lab, which Washington did shortly after the Biden-Xi meeting. NBC News was granted rare access to the Beijing lab, which examines evidence and issues reports for use in court proceedings and which both the U.S. and China say is essential to controlling fentanyl.

Yu said the lifting of the sanctions was a “positive start.”

“We believe, and hope the American people believe, that China will honor its commitments, and we are willing to cooperate with the U.S. and other countries worldwide on drug control law enforcement,” he said.

Whos to blame?

U.S. officials blame China for much of the current opioid crisis, which experts say began in the 1990s with the overprescription of legal pain medications and has steadily worsened as those medications gave way to illicit and extremely lethal narcotics such as fentanyl.

“We know that the global fentanyl supply chain, which ends with the deaths of Americans, often starts with chemical companies in China,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in October as the Justice Department announced new fentanyl-related indictments against China-based companies and their employees.

In 2019, China permanently classified all variants of fentanyl as controlled substances and took other measures to stem the flow of finished fentanyl from China to the U.S., which has not seized any shipments since then. But the U.S. says Chinese companies are instead now selling the precursor chemicals needed to synthesize fentanyl to drug cartels in Mexico, which then move the finished product to the U.S.

Cooperation between the two countries slowed in 2020, when the U.S. imposed trade sanctions on the Chinese Ministry of Public Security’s Institute of Forensic Science over China’s alleged abuses against Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim minority groups. China was further incensed by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory, announcing that it was suspending all counternarcotics cooperation with the U.S.

U.S. officials have prioritized the fight against fentanyl in their efforts to improve U.S.-China ties. A bipartisan group of U.S. senators made fentanyl a main focus of their meeting with Xi in Beijing last year, describing how it has devastated their communities.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., told reporters after the meeting that she wanted to “let the Chinese officials know how this epidemic has affected my small state,” where it kills about 500 people each year.

China empathizes with Americans’ drug-related suffering, Yu said, having been flooded with opium from British traders in the mid-19th century and later forced to legalize it even as it spurred a debilitating wave of addiction.

“There is a strong desire among the Chinese to support and help Americans get rid of the crisis,” he said.

China, which has strict drug policies, argues that the U.S. and other top consumers of fentanyl — all of them high-income countries — also have to address their own failure to suppress domestic demand. Despite having less than 5% of the world’s population, in 2019 the U.S. consumed 14.5% of the world’s fentanyl, more than 60% of the world’s oxycodone and more than 99% of the world’s hydrocodone, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.

Yu said since China tightened its controls in 2019, U.S. deaths from opioids such as fentanyl have increased.

“This is worth thinking about,” he said.

While addressing demand is important, and the U.S. could do more in terms of prevention, education and treatment, there will always be demand as long as there is supply, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and co-director of its series on the American opioid crisis.

The lower the supply, “the better off we are,” she told “PBS NewsHour Weekend” last year.

Targeting the supply chain

Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are increasingly being produced from very basic “dual-use” chemicals that have wide use for legal purposes and are unlikely to be classified as controlled substances, Felbab-Brown said in a Zoom interview.

“As criminal groups have encountered a wider set of chemicals being scheduled, they have become very good at making illegal substances like fentanyl and synthetic opioids and methamphetamine from these nonscheduled, widely used chemicals,” she said.

Under the sanctions lifted in November, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was unable to share information with the Institute of Forensic Science about which drugs it should be monitoring, leaving it in the dark about the “always evolving” precursor chemicals being used to make U.S.-bound fentanyl, according to Dr. Hua Zhendong of the National Narcotics Laboratory, which like the IFS is part of the Ministry of Public Security and was also sanctioned.

“In order for there to be action in China to curb supply, we have to know which chemical is now important,” Hua said.

Though fentanyl abuse is not common in China, it has had problems with other drugs such as methamphetamine and ketamine. In those cases, Hua said, China has succeeded in targeting the supply side.

“I think for the supply chain of fentanyl precursors, we can also solve it,” he said.

While the Biden administration has lifted sanctions, China has agreed to warn domestic companies not to trade in precursor chemicals. The White House says seizures of fentanyl shipments from China to the U.S. dropped significantly after Beijing issued a similar notice in 2019.

There is still deep skepticism as to whether U.S.-China cooperation on fentanyl will yield worthwhile results. Republicans have criticized the Biden administration’s lifting of sanctions as being too soft on Beijing, while human rights activists have decried it as a betrayal of the Uyghurs.

The Justice Department is also still seeking to prosecute a number of Chinese companies and individuals accused last year of crimes related to fentanyl. Though Chinese and U.S. law enforcement agencies have cooperated on several fentanyl-related cases in the past, Yu said the substances involved in the cases were not regulated by China, the U.S. or the United Nations, and that the U.S. had provided no evidence that the individuals had violated Chinese law.

“If there is a violation of Chinese law, China will take stringent measures,” Yu said.