OPINION: China Not to Blame for US Opioid Epidemic

OPINION: China Not to Blame for US Opioid Epidemic
Reuters / 達志影像

What you need to know

Blaming China for America’s opioid crisis is a convenient but ultimately misguided attempt to avoid taking responsibility.

When something bad happens, we tend to blame others before we look at ourselves. It makes us feel better.

Thus, the United States’ opioid epidemic is not the fault of people taking pain medicine to feel better; the doctors or pill mills that prescribed them; drug companies selling medicines for huge profits; the lobbyists and politicians who helped them do so; or a long-term depressed economy in America’s “heartland.”

Nope, it’s China, which is waging an underhand “Opioid War” against the West.

“The worst drug crisis in American history,” according to U.S. President Donald Trump, is essentially a cunning plot to undermine the country from within. Proof of this, he says, is that China manufactures the “flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl” pouring into the U.S.

That China produces fentanyl, a rapid onset opioid, is not in question. Despite a hardline policy against drugs and no significant domestic, synthetic opioid addiction problem, it has been estimated there are 30,000 companies that produce the drug. For at least a decade now, the synthetic cannabinoid Spice and opioid derivatives have been freely bought from China and sent to the West.

But should we blame the Chinese for Western recreational drug use? As a friend in Beijing says, “If Trump’s appeal stands, it would be legitimate for China to blame the U.S. for fast food production because more Chinese people are getting overweight and obese.”

The Chinese authorities deny they are responsible for this flood of illegal drugs to the West, but even so have agreed to work with the U.S. to stem the tide. They have already banned at least 23 analogues of fentanyl, but as in the case of Spice it is relatively easy for chemists to slightly change the formula and legally circumvent bans.

AP / 達志影像
The synthetic cannabinoid 'Spice' is just one of many legal narcotics exported from China to the United States.

China is a source of illegal opioids, but not the only one. Supply, after all, meets demand and the principal supplier is undeniably U.S. big pharma. Fentanyl was developed by a chemist from Belgium, but it was only after his company was bought by Johnson & Johnson that sales people were sent out to offer doctors deals and make it a prescription favorite.

The best-selling 21st century opioid, OxyContin, is produced by Purdue. The company is owned by the Sacklers, which has become one of the United States' richest families on the back of selling the drug and making false marketing claims about it.

Codeine was first discovered in 1832 but is now a popular addition to fizzy drinks called drank, lean or sizzurp. It’s an opioid that is being abused throughout America and is celebrated by rappers, even as they die from it – like Big Moe in 2007 and Fredo Santana in early 2018. No one knows how Lil Wayne is still standing, though long may he live. Codeine is produced worldwide but it’s American companies that provide it.

None of the above has stopped Trump or ideologues like the author Stephen W Mosher from blaming China. Because this is what they do … a bit like the manager of a losing soccer team, they blame the referee and decisions that went against them, or claim the victorious side played dirty or were lucky.

Which brings us to Mosher’s latest tome, titled "Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order." The former lieutenant in the U.S. navy earned both fame and notoriety for his study of forced abortions in China. Married to a Taiwanese woman for six years in the early ‘80s, he now lives in the U.S.

Essentially, the book is the latest in a long line of works from Mosher warning that China invented totalitarianism and desires worldwide hegemony. In it he claims China is manufacturing synthetic opioids and deliberately exporting them around the world to undermine democracy, free trade and the rule of law – as embodied by America.

Presumably, Mosher and possibly Trump are aware of the Opium War, and how Britain’s Honorable East India Company, supported by the U.S. and other members of a 19th century “coalition of the willing,” forced opium on the Chinese by putting a gun to their heads. They did so by insisting on the principle of free trade and individual rights.

This effectively bankrupted the nation and contributed to making China the “sick man of Asia.” It directly led to the sacking of the Summer Palace in 1860, an ill-judged act that has been used by the Communist Party as a motivational tool to spur economic progress and military strength. As pointed out in a China Daily article on historian and Opium War book author Julia Lovell, “The Opium War still leaves a lasting mark and casts a shadow on China even today.”

Second Opium War-guangzhou
第二次鴉片戰爭聯軍攻佔廣州,Public Domain
The British East India Company forced opium onto the Chinese market as a way to recoup a growing trade deficit.

“If you talk to many Chinese about the Opium War, a phrase you will quickly hear is "luo hou jiu yao ai da" (落後就要挨打), which literally means that if you are backward you will take a beating,” Lovell is quoted as saying.

What this means is that at some point China took responsibility for its situation and did something about it, making a positive of a negative. Even if it still holds a grudge against Britain and the rest for pillaging its Summer Palace and creating a mass opium addiction, it made this tragedy into a rallying call for growth.

Equating the Opium War with the Opioid War would be convenient because it is easy to read as a reversal of history, as karma, or justice. But I have never heard of such a sentiment in China, even though it would be understandable.

In contrast, the U.S. cannot realistically claim China is forcing poor Midwesterners to buy fentanyl. It may be one source of “cheap and deadly fentanyl” but there are no guns at the heads of Americans forcing them to take it – and there’s plenty of homegrown substitutes available as well. Blaming China or any other country is essentially dumping the problem on someone else, meaning no solution to such a devastating epidemic is likely.

It is surely better to look for a reason for the opioid crisis closer to home, rather than half way round the world. Maybe there isn’t a “pill for every ill.” A system that financially rewards dispensing huge amounts of drugs to cure pain or sickness is clearly not healthy. A population raised on drugs, like Ritalin for “overactive” behavior at school, is not a positive educational model.

Reuters / 達志影像
Deaths from overdose are a grim everyday reality across the United States.

Finally, if Trump wants to revive the long-discredited War on Drugs and execute drug dealers like his pal Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, it would be another step backwards. After all, do executions really make a country great?

If you want to change you have to take responsibility. Maybe, on this occasion, the U.S. could learn from others instead of blaming them.

Read Next: Taiwan’s War on Drugs: Harsh Approach or Tolerance?

TNL Editor: Morley J Weston