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The Opioid Wars

in Contemporary Politics/Foreign Policy/Political Issues by

The Opioid Crisis killed 64,000 Americans in 2016, causing more American casualties than the Vietnam War in its entirety. Although the American deaths during the Vietnam War sparked an unprecedented amount of media coverage and civic engagement, the more deadly Opioid Crisis receives significantly less coverage than the Vietnam War once did. Historians lack a consensus on the cause and severity of the Opioid Crisis. Many experts attribute the epidemic to pharmaceutical corruption, medical malpractice, or a larger problem with America’s drug culture. While all of these factors certainly contribute to America’s Opioid Epidemic, many seem to overlook China’s role in exacerbating, and possibly causing, the Opioid Crisis.  China, learning from their own troubled history with opium, is intentionally exacerbating America’s current opioid crisis to undermine America’s economy and, by extension, its global leadership position.

China aggravates America’s opioid crisis through its prodigious exports of fentanyl. By examining the effects of fentanyl compared to other addictive drugs, the dangers of the relatively new synthetic painkiller become abundantly clear. Fentanyl, for instance, is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. A mere 2 milligrams of fentanyl, furthermore, constitutes a lethal dosage.  The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) reports that one kilogram of fentanyl can be purchased in China for only $3,000-$5,000, which can earn upwards of $1.5 million on the illicit drug market. The DEA, additionally, reports that China is responsible for “the vast majority” of the fentanyl manufacturing. China unquestionably is the root source of fentanyl imports into the United States; the extent of the Chinese government’s knowledge and support of the fentanyl manufacturers, however, is less clear. On the surface, the Chinese government appears to be combating these producers, often outlawing the exports of specific types of fentanyl. These policies, while nominally assuring, actually allow manufacturers to make miniscule changes to the fentanyl’s chemical makeup before continuing to export it. Chinese fentanyl, moreover, is readily accessible on both the dark web and Google. Within a few clicks, nearly anyone can ensure the expedient delivery of illicit opioids. China’s chemical regulations, particularly regarding exports, are notoriously loose; China’s domestic tolerance for drugs, counterintuitively, is unbelievably strict. Chinese drug dealers, for example, are publicly sentenced to death in filled sports arenas before being taken away and executed. The disparity between China’s domestic intolerance for drugs in its own country and its leniency for helping facilitate America’s opioid crisis certainly raises alarming questions. A 2017 report from The US-China Economic Security and Review Commission concludes that Chinese authorities “place little emphasis on controlling [fentanyl’s] production and export.” China’s government, historically, has been closely involved in its industrial pursuits. As of 2007, 45% of China’s non-agricultural GDP were controlled by either state-owned enterprises or state-holding enterprises. The notion, proposed by Chinese leaders, that the Chinese government has no means to prevent the production of Fentanyl is absolutely spurious.  China, at best, is deliberately allowing opioids to freely flow into America. At worst, China is actively exacerbating America’s Opioid epidemic.

China, remembering how its own opium struggles crippled the nation, has launched a similar attack on the US in hopes that the fentanyl will have a comparable effect on the country.  Western traders, primarily British, had profited from smuggling opium into the empire of China’s Qing Dynasty since the 18th century. The smuggling significantly intensified, however, in the early 1800s. While opium had been used in Chinese medical practices for roughly a thousand years, between 6 and 12 million Chinese were opium addicts by 1840.  Britain, essentially, used opium as a means to retard the Chinese economy. China, attempting to address its opium crisis, intensely suppressed the opium trade by destroying thousands of crates of opium and blockading the Pearl River estuary, a prominent Chinese trading port. The superior British forces deftly invaded China, launching several victorious military campaigns in the span of two years. The overpowered Chinese capitulated to the British, signing the Treaty of Nanjing, an unequal treaty that gave the British unchecked control over the Chinese economy. Opium, eventually legalized in China by the British, continued to flow into China, addicting millions more. Left with a crippled economy and an addicted populace, China spiraled into a self-proclaimed “century of humiliation.” China, during the following century, struggled to overcome a seemingly insurmountable addiction crisis. Given China’s long history with drug epidemics, China appears to be mirroring Britain’s smuggling tactics in the US right now. Using drug cartels and the dark web rather than merchants and ships, China is actively infiltrating the US with fentanyl in hopes of recreating the destabilizing effect that opium had on China in the US.

China aspires to destabilize the US because, ultimately, it wants to be the foremost global power. Xi Jinping, China’s president, plans to resist American policies that seek to “contain [China’s] rise.” Chinese analysts claim that Jinping plans to “step into the vacuum [the US] leaves behind.” In fact, The New York Times reports that Jinping will pursue his agenda even if it risks “triggering a new Cold War.” China evidently views the US as a waning superpower, and Jinping appears eager to expedite its decline. By aggravating America’s ongoing opioid epidemic, China seeks to eclipse America’s status as the leading international superpower. The Centre for Research on Globalization reports that China aspires to gain “global leadership” through economic means rather than war and conquest. The only country with a more robust economy than China’s is the United States. The only way to satiate China’s global economic ambitions, therefore, is for the US to lose its international leadership position. If China yearns to be the global economic leader then perhaps its fentanyl exports serve to undermine the American economy exactly how Britain’s opium crippled the Chinese economy. Jinping’s policies, furthermore, have included sizable investments in technological research and development, solar and wind energy, and advanced medical products. As justification for all of these investments, Jinping bluntly states that he wants China to be “a new choice for other countries.” While Jinping’s policies are positioning China to take the reins of global power in the event of an American vacuum on the global stage, China’s fentanyl exports are aiding the US in creating that vacuum.

America’s Opioid Epidemic certainly embodies an underlying competition for global control between the US and China. While America’s Opioid Crisis has already killed hundreds of thousands and addicted millions, those numbers could potentially pale in comparison to the casualties of “a new Cold War” between the US and China. Reliving the tensions of the original Cold War with 21st Century technologies—such as nuclear weapons 3,000 times as powerful as the ones used at Hiroshima—seems particularly dangerous. China, somewhat miraculously, overcame their own opium addictions largely through state-sponsored rehabilitation centers. If China is drawing inspiration from the western history playbook to exacerbate America’s Opioid Epidemic then perhaps the US, ironically, can look at China’s history to solve its Opioid Crisis.  

Graphic Design by Jackson Edwards
Product of Errant Publishing Co.


1 Comment

  1. Wouldn’t other addictive substances that use needles such as heroin be more dangerous though because they spread AIDS etc. in comparison to opioids that ought to be regulated by pharmacies?

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