A court in northern China sentenced one fentanyl trafficker to death and eight others for various jail sentences on Thursday after a drug bust that was the first collaboration between law enforcement officials in China and the U.S. working to crack down globally on synthetic opioids.
The nine were sentenced after pleading guilty to manufacturing and trafficking, charges stemming from when Chinese police busted the drug ring based in the northern Chinese city of Xingtai. The drug ring shipped synthetic drugs illicitly to the U.S. and other countries from a gritty clandestine laboratory.
Chinese officials worked off a 2017 tip from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about an online drug vendor who went by the name Diana, and wound up arresting more than 20 suspects and seizing 26.2 pounds of fentanyl and 42.1 pounds of other drugs.
“The concrete action taken by China is a direct result of President Trump’s strong leadership on this issue, and the personal engagement by many members of Congress in communicating our entire government’s commitment to saving American lives," Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Jim Carroll said in a statement. "China’s fentanyl trafficking and production prosecution is a positive step in following through on the pledge secured by President Trump.
Carroll said the agency looks forward to furthering cooperation between Chinese and U.S. investigators across international borders to "stop the flow of these deadly substances into the United States."
The ONDCP said that Carroll secured commitments from China during a meeting in Beijing in September to take further steps and law enforcement action to crack down on illicit fentanyl production and trafficking.
Of those in court on Thursday, 41-year-old Liu Yong was sentenced to death with a two-year reprieve, while Jiang Juhua and Wang Fengxi were sentenced to life in prison. Six other members of the operation received lesser sentences, ranging from six months to 10 years. Death sentences in China are almost always commuted to life in prison after the reprieve.
Liu and Jiang were accused of manufacturing and trafficking illicit drugs. The others were accused of trafficking.
Chinese officials have said the Xingtai case was one of three fentanyl-trafficking networks they are pursuing based on U.S. intelligence but declined to discuss the details of the other cases, which are ongoing.
Moore said Chinese police identified more than 50 U.S. residents who tried to buy fentanyl from the Xingtai organization. Those leads prompted more than 25 domestic investigations and have already resulted in three major criminal arrests and indictments in New York and Oregon, he said.
Yu Haibin, deputy director of the Office of China National Narcotics Control Commission, said Thursday the heavy sentencing shows the "position and resolution" of the Chinese government to "severely punish fentanyl-related crimes" as part of a "consistent zero-tolerance attitude" on drug-related crimes, according to the South China Morning Post.
"The experience we drew from the case was that both sides should share information in a timely way and cooperate pragmatically in the investigation, including in sharing evidence and drug testing technology," he said Thursday. "We must also respect each other’s legal system."
Officials in Washington have blamed Beijing for failing to curb the supply of synthetic drugs that U.S. officials say come mainly from China as overdose deaths continue to rise.
In August, President Trump lashed out at Chinese President Xi Jinping for failing to do more to combat illicit opioid distribution in China's vast, freewheeling chemicals industry. U.S. officials have reportedly moved to link Beijing's efforts on fentanyl to U.S. trade talks.
But Haibin on Thursday said allegations that the Chinese supply is at the root of America's opioid problem "irresponsible and inconsistent with the actual facts."
"Drug crime is the public enemy of all humankind," he added. "It's about the life of human beings. It should not be related with the trade war or other political reasons."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the decade ending in 2017 — increasingly, from synthetic opioids like the ones sold by the Xingtai network.
Law enforcement officials said the Xingtai network operated with a sales force that spoke English and included online marketing, contract manufacturing, and sophisticated export operation. Officials in the U.S. are hopeful that China's decision earlier this year to outlaw the unsanctioned distribution of all fentanyl-like drugs as a class will help constrain supply and make it easier to prosecute Chinese dealers.
Among the law enforcement actions that China has pledged to make a priority include: establishing recurring law enforcement cooperation meetings, rapidly responding to investigative leads, expanding detection and narcotics laboratory capabilities, improving the tracking of postal shipments, and launching joint investigations.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.