“Without meaning to say that the foreigners harbor such destructive intentions in their hearts, we yet positively assert that from their inordinate thirst after gain, they are perfectly careless about the injuries they inflict upon us! And such being the case, we should like to ask what has become of that conscience which heaven has implanted in the breasts of all men?”
The full text of Lin Tse-hsu impassioned open letter to Queen Victoria imploring her to intervene in the illegal smuggling of opium onto the shores of mainland China is a profound plea to morality. Delivered in 1839 in the months preceding the escalations that would result in the first Opium War, the letter fell on deaf hears by the time it was received in England. However, 180 years later it is difficult not to empathize with the sentiments expressed by Tse-hsu. He refers to the opium crisis pervading his home as a “dreadful calamity” and with the number of opium addicts estimated between five and twelve million at the time of his writing it’s a fair description.
The Opium Wars ensued and resulted in the unequal treaties which subsequently led to what Chinese refer to as the “Century of Humiliation.” It was a grim period stained with rebellions and civil wars that fueled a resentment for the West which contributed in large part to the success of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1950. It is interesting to speculate what the state of China would be today had Queen Victoria and the rest of the world heeded Tse-hsu’s letter and avoided the Opium Wars. How largely did that first domino effect the rise of Mao Zedong and the tens of millions of deaths he eventually was responsible for?
It’s difficult to say. Present day politics have crowded the dialogue surrounding Mao, thus how many degrees of separation are needed to connect his regime to the Opium Wars is material for a different debate. Regardless, the Opium Wars were both avoidable and unnecessary and the loss of life that they resulted in is impossible to quantify. It was a mistake on the part of the Western world. As Tse-hsu so eloquently said in his letter nearly 200 years ago:
“By what principle of reason then, should these foreigners send in return a poisonous drug, which involves in destruction those very natives of China? Without meaning to say that the foreigners harbor such destructive intentions in their hearts, we yet positively assert that from their inordinate thirst after gain, they are perfectly careless about the injuries they inflict upon us! And such being the case, we should like to ask what has become of that conscience which heaven has implanted in the breasts of all men?”
Unfortunately, China has either forgotten the wise words of Tse-hsu or committed itself to the vindictive “eye for a round eye” method of retaliation. As with almost any situation where this retaliatory phrase is applied, it’s not that simple. If opium was a dreadful calamity, its modern-day equivalent “fentanyl” is a deadly scourge.
Created in 1960 for the treatment of severe pain, fentanyl quickly became the drug of choice used for euthanasia. It is 50 times more powerful than laboratory grade heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine and Vicodin. As little as two milligrams (four grains of salt) is all that is required to kill a 200-pound man. Because it is synthetic, it is incredibly cheap compared to less-potent alternatives like heroin and oxycontin. What’s to stop a drug dealer or cartel from cutting their drugs with inexpensive fentanyl, charging more money for the increased potency and sending customers on their way with what has the same practical use as a cyanide pill? Nothing but a conscience. As is evidenced by Queen Victoria ignoring Lin Tse-hsu’s letter long ago, hard drugs and consciences haven’t had the most intimate relationship throughout human history.
Where does China fit in to all this?
China is by far the largest producer of synthetic drugs on the planet and fentanyl is no exception. The size of the pharmaceutical industry (China is #2 worldwide behind the U.S.) and the inadequate regulation surrounding it provide a perfect environment for the manufacture of illicit chemicals. A Drug Enforcement Agency report claims there are roughly 160,000 legal and illegal chemical companies in China with the facilities required to manufacture fentanyl. And why wouldn’t they? There are many theories as to why China doesn’t care about the wanton production of this dangerous drug within its borders, but on the surface it’s just a lucrative endeavor. $1,500 worth of precursors can yield an amount of fentanyl with a street value of $1.3 million USD.
And U.S. dollars are exactly what is being spent at the street level. With a few minor exceptions such as Estonia, Europe has managed to avoid the crisis on a wide scale level. In the age of the internet black market you can find anything anywhere, but Europe’s appetite for opioids are mostly satisfied by the poppy fields of Afghanistan. Heroin in Europe doesn’t go through Mexican cartels, and thus the price and quality don’t leave much room for the fentanyl market to grow.
This doesn’t fully explain the massive discrepancy in fentanyl use between the two continents however. In Europe there were 736 seizures of fentanyl in 2016 compared to 31,700 in the U.S. How is that possible? It’s a complex answer, but ultimately the conclusion is a completely broken system of pain management in the U.S. Doctors in the United States have been throwing opioid pills at patients like candy since the late 90’s, and the last two decades have seen hundreds of thousands of deaths related to opioid overdose and addiction clinics filled to the brim. From the patients to the doctors to the pharmaceutical companies down to the very idea that treatment and pills are the same thing, the system needs triage.
It is no secret that many doctors in the U.S. receive gifts and bonuses from pharmaceutical companies for being the “top salesman.” In a country where 100 million citizens claim to be in chronic pain (a subjective term), having “doctors” who are referred to as salesman by drugmakers is a recipe for disaster. Writing 27,000 prescriptions in three years doesn’t make you a doctor, it makes you a drug dealer. Add to the equation the justice systems treatment of companies like Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family and you begin to wonder if the government wants its populous drugged up and dumbed down. Purdue, who manufactures oxycontin, was willingly disingenuous about the addictiveness of its product and still were allowed to declare bankruptcy and walk away from thousands of lawsuits without any admission of wrongdoing. There is demonstrable evidence that their disingenuity is largely culpable for the state of the opioid crisis today and the hundreds of thousands of lives it has taken, but instead of jail they are at the bank dividing up the billions of dollars they made from its proceeds.
Steps have been taken to slow the rampant prescription of opioids and there has been some success in the last year, but addicts are not cured by drought they are cured by rehab. Less prescription pills on the market means many people seek illicit alternatives and China has stepped up to fill that void with fentanyl and its analogs.
JFK airport in New York City is the point of entry for over half of the country’s international packages. 100% of the fentanyl seized at the airport in 2017 was from China. Mexican customs agents at the port of Lazao Cardenas seized 25.75 tons of fentanyl from China last month. To put that in perspective, 25.75 tons, or 23,368 kilograms is enough to kill 92% of the world’s population given the two milligrams required to overdose. Late last year Canadian officials revealed that $5 billion dollars was being laundered into Canadian property by a Chinese fentanyl gang. Meanwhile Chinese officials deny that most of the fentanyl in the U.S. originates in China.
And although it is the most popular, fentanyl is hardly the most dangerous. Derivatives such as “carfentanyl” are by weight 100 times more powerful than fentanyl and commercially used to tranquilize elephants. At that level of potency, you are dealing with a chemical weapon.
The increasingly tumultuous relationship between the U.S. and China due to the trade war is being strained further by this contemporary Opium War. President Trump has accused Chinese President Xi Jingping of failing to make reasonable attempts to crack down on the production and export of synthetic drugs, with the Chinese response advising the U.S. to get its own house in order before pointing fingers.
There is no easy solution. For certain the U.S. needs to get its irresponsible opioid (and antibiotic) prescription issues under control, but the Chinese deserve some responsibility for the Mcdonalds-esque production of dangerous synthetic chemicals that could wipe out the population of this planet multiple times over if weaponized. There are two schools of thought and the truth is somewhere in the middle. On one hand, the Chinese are not forcing the drug down anybody’s throat, it is the consumer who should know better. On the other hand, “It’s not crazy he who eats the whole cake, but he who gives it to him.”
It is said that the Chinese have a long memory, perhaps it is time they remember the wise words of Lin Tse-hsu.
“By what principle of reason then, should these foreigners send in return a poisonous drug, which involves in destruction those very natives of China?”
By Eric Alexiev