BEIJING - Chinese authorities on Thursday, Nov. 7, handed severe sentences to members of a fentanyl production ring in an overt show of commitment toward tackling an issue at the heart of President Trump's criticisms of China.
Central government officials invited foreign media to a court in northern Hebei Province where officials announced the arrest of 20 people and the closure of two online shops selling the synthetic opioid, which U.S. public health officials say is responsible for killing more Americans in overdoses than any other drug.
The timing of the highly publicized sentencing appeared propitious: negotiators from Washington and Beijing this week are working toward a "phase one" trade deal that could forestall or reverse tariff increases.
Chinese police, working from a tip from the Department of Homeland Security, discovered the drug ring's processing plant and seized 11.9 kilograms (26.2 pounds) of fentanyl and 19.1 kilograms (42.1 pounds) of other substances, including aprozolam, commonly known as Xanax, Chinese officials said.
The court in Xingtai said one member of the ring named Liu Yong would receive a death sentence, suspended for two years, while two others would get life in prison. Six others received between six months' and 10 years' imprisonment. The Chinese government followed up with a statement that touted "China's willingness to sincerely and concretely cooperate" with the United States on drug enforcement.
The Chinese statement called the case "an excellent paragon of U.S.-China drug enforcement collectively combating fentanyl" and said China would continue to contribute its "experience . . . wisdom and power" to the worldwide fight against drugs.
A representative from U.S. Immigration and Drug Enforcement told reporters that the initial tip came in August 2017 from Homeland Security investigators in New Orleans who interviewed a cooperating defendant. They passed the information on to Chinese authorities, who agreed to a joint investigation and sting operation that yielded "an extraordinary number of arrests and seizures of contraband."
"As the success of this joint investigation demonstrates, Chinese and American investigators have the capacity to collaborate across international borders," Austin Moore, an ICE attache in the Beijing embassy, told reporters. "Today's event is another important step."
Some U.S. officials, including Trump, have faulted an underground Chinese industry - and lax Chinese government oversight - for an influx of opioids into the United States that caused as many as 30,000 overdose deaths in 2018.
In August, Trump took to Twitter to accuse Chinese leader Xi Jinping of failing to stem the flow of opioids, which he said Xi had promised as part of ongoing trade negotiations. Top Chinese officials later pushed back, saying China has made good-faith efforts to fight fentanyl production and urged Trump not to link the opioid dispute with broader U.S. complaints over Chinese trade practices.
The timing and staging of Thursday's sentencing seemed telling: China, which does not have independent courts, invites foreign media in rare cases to cover trials and judgments that the ruling Communist Party wants conveyed to overseas audiences.
After an executive from Chinese tech company Huawei was arrested in Canada 11 months ago, for instance, the government invited reporters, including Canadian media, to cover the trial of an alleged Canadian drug smuggler who was sentenced to death - a move seen by Ottawa as a veiled threat.
As trade talks enter a delicate stage this week, central government officials who appeared Thursday in Xingtai, a city in China's steel belt 250 miles south of Beijing, presented an optimistic face and called on the United States to view the fentanyl bust as a bright spot in the bilateral relationship.
A senior drug enforcement official, Yu Haibin, told reporters after the sentencing that China has worked closely with U.S. authorities to crack two other significant cases.
But the anti-drug actions should not be seen as linked to the trade dispute, he added as he questioned China's role in American overdoses, which many U.S. officials believe is beyond doubt.
"China's control over fentanyl substances is becoming more and more strict," Yu said. "The number of deaths from substance abuse in the United States is not rising, which indicates that the U.S. opioid crisis is not highly correlated with China."
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This article was written by Gerry Shih, a reporter for The Washington Post.
The Washington Post's Liu Yang in Xingtai, China, contributed to this report.