The White House Is Blaming China for America’s Opioid Problem

The opioid crisis in the US is ravaging the country, leaving an enormous human toll in its wake. But rather than dealing with the root causes, the US establishment is using the crisis as a weapon in its conflict with China.

An officer from US Customs and Border Protection finds Oxycodone pills in a parcel at John F. Kennedy Airport’s US Postal Service facility on June 24, 2019 in New York. (Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images)

The opioid crisis in the United States sets appalling new records each year. Roughly 110,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the twelve months leading up to March 2023. Drug overdose deaths per one hundred thousand people almost tripled from 11.9 in 2009 to 32.4 in 2021. Most of these deaths involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Last month the Supreme Court granted an emergency request from the White House to halt the restructure of OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma. The Biden administration has asked for clarification on why a bankruptcy court allowed Purdue’s owners — nicknamed “the family that built an empire of pain” — to pay $6 billion to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing.

It would be comforting to think that corporate America is being held to account for its profiteering role in this mess. Unsurprisingly, that is not the US establishment’s strategy. Instead, the White House, Congress, and the Treasury have at times insinuated, at others outright claimed, that China is responsible for the crisis. According to this narrative, it’s not despair, working-class decline, inadequate public health care, and big business that got America hooked on opioids: it’s a Chinese conspiracy.

For more than two hundred years the United States has accused China of undermining American success, first by its refusal to take part in the drug trade, then by allegedly taking part too well. These claims are not designed to be incontrovertible, but to buttress the White House’s geopolitical maneuvering.

“Nefarious Enterprise”

In the early nineteenth century the United States wanted to eke out a greater share of the massive Chinese market. It was running up an unsustainable trade deficit with China, and was dwarfed by its former master. British companies traded on more favorable terms and had an intimidating monopoly on the sale of opium.

In the 1830s, opium represented 52 percent of all exports to China. Officially Americans provided about 2 percent of this, though unofficially they carved out a larger share. In 1839, the Qing government tried to enforce a Chinese ban on opium trading by seizing contraband. Britain used this as a pretext to expand its empire and influence, and launched the First Opium War.

American companies in China had had distrustful but practical interactions with the British throughout the 1830s, and knew an opportunity when they saw one. They convinced Congress to send a naval squadron to Canton for their protection.

Bostonian interests were well represented there, and two congressmen from Massachusetts — John Quincy Adams and Caleb Cushing — put on a dog and pony show to preempt any accusations of US opportunism. Adams played bad cop, maintaining tat opium had nothing to do with the war. He argued on a speaking tour that

The fundamental principle of the Chinese Empire is anti-commercial . . . it utterly denies the equality of other nations with itself, and even their independence . . . the cause of war is the kotow! — the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China . . .

Cushing wrung his hands in Congress, declaring that the United States would not support Great Britain’s “nefarious enterprise.” In 1844 he used the British victory to muscle through the Treaty of Wangxia, which expanded American access to Chinese ports. The treaty prohibited opium. But because it delegated punishing American opium smugglers to China — something local authorities would be fearful of doing in the new political order — the influx of US-supplied opium into China expanded. This trade with China, at least in part, helped fuel US industrialization and maritime expansion into the Pacific.

“A Strong Current of Sisterly Good Will”

Half a century after the Treaty of Wangxia, the United States had become a real colonial power player in Asia. But opium, lucrative many decades earlier, had become a problem.

China had massively expanded opium production to deal with the trade deficit resulting from European predation. By the late nineteenth century, it was producing 85 percent of global opiates, and consumed all of that domestically. European revenues had subsequently taken a hit, and imperialist jostling to increase Chinese market share ramped up.

The United States was paranoid about losing out. It had seized the Philippines as a colony during a brutal war that ended in 1902, and the Americans suspected opium addiction had increased among Filipinos in the first years of the occupation. This complicated their plans for mass forced labor in the colony.

These international problems dovetailed with the elite’s mood at home. An official Chinese boycott of US goods in response to racist legislation was spooking American manufacturers. There was also a growing distaste for opium among the urban elite due to the drug crisis that had developed since the end of the Civil War.

President Theodore Roosevelt — whose family had done quite well from the opium trade in China — spied a chance to reduce the grumbling at home, mollify the Qing, and improve labor discipline in the colonies. The United States performatively returned some of the funds it had extorted from China after the Boxer Rebellion. The American ambassador to China’s wife — close to the Empress Dowager Cixi — asked publicly, “Does not this attitude reveal a strong current of sisterly good will, when [the United States] is able to sweep away the heavy weights of financial gain?”

The United States used the Philippines as a trial run for opium prohibition, then strongarmed China into prohibiting opium domestically and participating in international opium suppression negotiations. This could have meant financial ruin for China, yet this didn’t stop the US Opium Commissioner boasting to the New York Times that

the leading Chinese statesmen were delighted by what they thought our friendly act in the suppression of vice in territory neighbouring them.

The emergence of provincial warlords following the fall of the Qing saw the opium trade explode once more. The United States materially supported Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang (KMT) in the subsequent struggle between the competing powers centers — in large part to stymie the rise of the Communist Party. The KMT was heavily involved in opium trading — both official monopolies and the illicit kind. Many US companies — such as the National City Bank, now Citibank — were strongly suspected by US officials of being involved in opium trafficking in China in this period.

“Peddlers With Political Motives”

The United States emerged from World War II relatively unscathed, utterly dominant economically, and ready to assert some serious hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region. It was incensed by the Communist victory in 1949, despite the vast material aid it had poured into KMT coffers.

Determined to keep the People’s Republic of China (PRC) out of the United Nations in the early 1950s, Congress published reports declaring that

subversion through drug addiction is an established aim of Communist China. Since World War II, Red China has pushed the exportation of heroin to servicemen and civilians of the United States and other free nations of the world.

The US occupying force in Japan — whose population was suffering under an explosion of methamphetamine use — declared that

the dirty drug war of Mao Tse-tung and his compradores is in a sense infinitely worse than any Atom Bomb, for while the Bomb most certainly destroys the human body, the dirty drugs from Red China not only in time kill the body, but before that pervert, twist and all but destroy the will and the human spirit.

Never mind that drug use was suspiciously clustered around American military bases, that a rump of the US-backed KMT ran drug operations in Burma and Thailand, or that the CIA itself had most likely become involved in drug transportation in the region. A more convenient narrative of Chinese-attempted world domination through addiction had been crafted.

“Motivated by Profit”

The Nixon administration changed the US approach in the early 1970s, reestablishing ties with the PRC to drive a wedge between it and the USSR. The motivation was principally geopolitical, but China’s trade potential was another major factor.

Having just spent the better part of a decade decrying the PRC as a narcostate, the United States had some backtracking to do. A State Department spokesman quickly announced that

There is no reliable evidence that the Communist Chinese have ever engaged in or sanctioned the illicit export of opium or its derivatives. Nor is there any evidence of that country exercising any control over participating in the Southeast Asia opium trade.

The chief of the strategic intelligence office of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs hurriedly explained to the press that

the Chinese Communists are not seeking world domination by making the young people of the West slaves to narcotics . . . the Chinese dominating this traffic are the overseas Chinese, motivated by profit rather than ideology.

In an effort to ingratiate itself to the PRC, Congress accused the KMT of trafficking in Burma, and “aloof” British authorities in Hong Kong of turning a blind eye to the heroin trade. The government also pointed the finger at US ex-servicemen who had fought in Vietnam. The House Committee on Foreign Affairs even dramatically accused the US Military Government in Okinawa of allowing heroin to reach the America.

Canary in the Coal Mine

America’s characterization of China as a drug pusher has come and gone, depending on its usefulness. As the conflict with China now intensifies, it has been reweaponized.

The Biden administration is now campaigning to convince the public of a link between China and the staggering US death toll from fentanyl. This year, in June and July alone, the United States imposed more sanctions; sent a string of officials to Beijing to discuss opioids; expressed dissatisfaction with these talks by criminally charging four Chinese chemical manufacturing companies with trafficking; and convened the pointed “Global Coalition to Address Synthetic Drugs” meeting of eighty nations. The secretary of state warned there that

the United States is a canary in the coal mine when it comes to fentanyl. . . . Having saturated the United States market, transnational criminal enterprises are turning elsewhere to expand their profits.

The Republicans have reveled in trying to wedge Biden further on the issue, with the likes of Republican Young Kim warning that “the [Chinese Communist Party] is using American lives as a bargaining chip to achieve sanctions relief for its human rights abuses.” Kim was part of a bipartisan House Financial Services Committee hearing in March, clunkily titled, “Follow the Money: The CCP’s Business Model Fueling the Fentanyl Crisis.”

The hearing itself was a nice symbol of contemporary US cynicism. The committee’s ranking member, Ohio Democratic representative Joyce Beatty, has received funding from Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen, who together run 85 percent of drug distribution in the United States. This gang has paid hundreds of millions in fines for feeding the black market in opioids, and in 2016 successfully lobbied to limit the Drug Enforcement Agency’s ability to punish them further. But Beatty’s campaign finance situation is not unusual — Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Joe Biden also receive campaign funding from these drug industry giants.

There are plenty of parallels between today’s anti-China rhetoric and that of the early 1900s. Then, roughly 0.8 percent of the US population was addicted to morphine or cocaine, close to the one percent of Americans today who qualify as having an opioid use disorder. Just like in the Teddy Roosevelt era, twenty-first century presidents are lobbying China for “level playing fields,” and leveraging drug control forums to force the issue. The key difference is that last century’s disparity of bargaining strengths is long gone. China and the United States are now fully fledged capitalist competitors, awkwardly joined at the hip. Any interimperial brinkmanship has far higher stakes today — for all parties.

The United States needs a serious plan to deal with its lack of prospects, failing infrastructure, and mass despair. But for the US gerontocracy, blaming China is a far easier, and time-tested, strategy.