Beijing hit out at the United States on Thursday over its decision to impose sanctions on Chinese painkiller makers as Washington tries to curb an addiction epidemic that killed a record 100,000 Americans last year.
As people dealing with addiction increasingly turn to cheaper pills bought online from abroad, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday that makes it easier for the United States to target foreign drug traffickers.
The actions “will help disrupt the global supply chain and the financial networks that enable synthetic opioids and precursor chemicals to reach the United States,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
China said it “resolutely opposes” the move.
“These kinds of erroneous acts, in which one side is sick but forces the other to take the medicine, is not constructive,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters.
US law enforcement says China remains a major source of both fentanyl and chemicals used to make both the powerful opioid, as well as other synthetic drugs.
Beijing insists it has taken measures to control fentanyl production and precursors.
Under Biden’s new executive order, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on four Chinese chemical companies and one individual, Chuen Fat Yip, whom it described as “one of the largest, if not the largest, producer of anabolic steroids in the world.”
The US State Department also put up a reward offer of up to $5 million for the arrest of the 68-year-old, who is believed to live in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
In federal charges filed in 2018, his company was accused of producing some $280 million of anabolic steroids over five years and sending ingredients for the painkiller fentanyl through small packages sent around the world.
Last month, US authorities seized the equivalent of $2.3 million in the cryptocurrency bitcoin traced back to Chuen, prosecutors based in Dallas said.
The US Treasury Department also imposed sanctions on two criminal drug groups in Mexico and one in Brazil.
The sanctions will block any assets in the United States that the groups or Chuen may have and criminalise transactions from the US.
More than 100,000 Americans died in the year through April from painkiller overdoses, an epidemic initially blamed on the way drug companies eagerly promoted their use, and how readily available they became to people in despair.
Painkiller addiction has spiked more recently due to a proliferation of fake drugs, often smuggled in from overseas, that can be bought online.
Biden’s executive order allows the United States to target foreign drug makers directly rather than focusing on cartels or other criminal groups, historically the focus of US efforts.
Biden also established the US Council on Transnational Organized Crime, which will coordinate among departments to combat transnational crime.
‘Send a signal’
A 2020 report by the US Drug Enforcement Agency said that while Mexican drug traffickers were increasingly producing tablets that are smuggled into the United States, the primary source of fentanyl materials – some sent to Mexico – originated in China.
The report said that India, known for its giant pharmaceutical industry, was also quickly becoming a source of illicit painkillers.
“I think it’s very simple that a lot of the precursors to synthetic opioids originate in China,” a Biden administration official said of Wednesday’s actions. “And it was important for us to send a signal on that front.”
Under heavy pressure from the United States, China decreed a ban on fentanyl in April 2019.
A report last year by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies found that Chinese makers quickly branched out to sell the precursors inside fentanyl, which are not banned and often have legal uses as well.
The Chinese sellers often sell the ingredients openly on the web, helping to secure credibility and customers, it said.
The prosecutors in Texas said that Chuen was even believed to have travelled to the United States in 2015 to attend a trade show and negotiate transactions.
• AFP with additional editing by Jim Pollard