When death comes knocking, use opium

(To J. Pemberton)

The XNUMXst century will be remembered, initially, for epidemics; healthy bearers of ancestral terrors who have brought to the fore new monasteries and anachronistic references to a spirituality that is intolerant of Western modernity, in addition to that induced by viruses we have had to witness the devastating wave of another form of contagion, certainly not attributable to any otherworldly will, but facilitated by the pragmatism of an empire still heavenly and never like this middle.

Opioids are the vectors of the deadliest overdose epidemic to ever hit the USA, accounting for 84.000 of the 110.000 deaths in 2022, a sixfold increase in overdoses since 2000. Opioids kill more than firearms, road accidents, homicides and various forms of cancer.

Phases of evolution: introduction and pervasive marketing of OxyContin and other prescription opioids that tripled deaths in the 2000s; legislative interventions which, by blocking growth opioid have increased that of heroin with the surge in overdoses and the contextual arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin, its perfect economical and adulterant substitute.

Fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans aged 19 to 49, accounting for 90% of all opioid overdoses. Fentanyl has changed the geography of the drug market with an enveloping movement, starting from Appalachia and moving from the Southwest to the Midwest and Northeast. There is little information about the smuggling, and the DEA1 points to the role of the Mexican underworld; However, nothing changes the nature of the relationship between imports and overdoses, with seizures of fentanyl from European and Latin American shipments being remarkably pervasive2.

That China's pharmaceutical industry is politically powerful when it comes to exports of basic chemicals and precursors, producing over 2.000 items worth over 2 million tons3, it's not a mystery: more than 100 billion USD, equal to a third of the value of the American equivalent.

Many manufacturers operate in the shadows, hiding the apple of fentanyl among other indistinguishable thousands of poisoned apples; in the face of the US diplomatic offensive, here is the Chinese sale of chemical precursors of fentanyl and methamphetamine to Mexican cartels.

Fentanyl is like water: it finds a way. It is no coincidence that between 90 and 2015 Beijing produced methamphetamine both for internal consumption and for Australian and East Asian exports, so much so that after the contemptuous initial stance taken by Zhongnanhai4 There is approval for Sino-Australian cooperation with bilateral activities which, however, have not stopped the production of methamphetamine towards South East Asia and Mexico, the nodal point of smuggling.

So far, Chinese enforcement of anti-fentanyl regulations has been vague and never directed head-on against companies selling precursors; the opioid epidemic therefore only increases friction, also because any possible counteraction is subordinated to the state of the geostrategic relations in progress.

From this perspective, it should be noted that the Chinese geopolitical role remains conditioned by economic development which, if on the one hand it is supported holeographically by the coils of the Dragon, on the other opens the doors to a profound vulnerability which is splitting the economic system based on 'capitalist Marxist oxymoron infected by the virus of Triad organized crime5.

Upon closer inspection there are several contradictions, but all of them must be interpreted under the contextualising light of communist power in an imperial version; in 1949 Maoism banned opium, however several years of economic reforms opened the doors of CCP orthodoxy to the silent counter-revolution caused by hallucinations induced by various narcotics.

The expansion of criminal groups is linked to the series of economic reforms aimed at allowing the transition from a centralized economy to a Western-style one which has created pockets of poverty in the countryside. Mobility, social and economic changes have therefore allowed the increase in domestic drug production and abuse; Beijing also had to test the scourge of drug addiction according to the numerical paradigm imposed by imperial dimensions: millions of people to be re-educated and with the certainty of exponential increases in the numbers of subjects politically fragile6 and not only among the poorest social strata7.

Poppy cultivations extend into the most inaccessible areas of Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi, to which are added the cultivations of ephedra, a plant from which the ephedrine necessary for the production of amphetamines is obtained, with China representing the transit point for heroin destined for the markets of Australia, Western Europe and North America8.

Given the decisions taken by Beijing to combat production, dealing and consumption, the official estimates of consumers, aged between 18 and 65, have increased the number of drug addicts, according to unofficial but more realistic data given the Chinese demographics, which exceed 12 million9.

The Americans, sensitive to the call of the next presidential elections, in an attempt to stem the opioid epidemic, have moved against Chinese companies and executives accused of exporting what is needed to produce fentanyl, largely synthesized in Mexico; there is no doubt that China10 has limited its cooperation due to the lack of American support for the reduction of tariffs, not to mention the current administration them he has not softened his line towards Beijing. It is clear that both countries now need mutual support, given that the dispute has also affected Mexico and its president Lopez Obrador, plus Venezuela and Bolivia, insensitive to the obligations regarding the fight against narcotics.

For Biden, the fentanyl crisis has turned into a political weapon which, increasing in value with the number of deaths, somehow brings the GOP ("Grand Old Party" - the Republican Party, ed.) closer to the Dems.

Two aspects are interesting across the board: the new Global AI Governance Initiative, which reiterates the apparent Chinese opposition to the use of generative Artificial Intelligence technology for manipulative purposes of civil societies, a possible tool of disinformation and propaganda that can be projected onto the next American electoral consultations; a mirror and contrary vision of opium wars which, between 1839 and 1860 saw the conflict between the Chinese Qing Empire and the United Kingdom, which had opened the Chinese market to opium coming from British India. It is worth remembering here Xi's continuous reference to the events of century of humiliation and to nationalist revanchism. It is also no mystery how China is strengthening its influence on Europe, thanks to investments made in critical infrastructures such as 5G and in the expansion of transport networks11. After all, the soft power Chinese is politically centralized and different from the American one, however developed more freely.

What is certain is that Beijing is very clear about the teachings of Joseph Nye where the image of the country, linked to sinosphere, plays a fundamental role in a globalized reality where the infosphere is always available, where the image of a strong government is more rewarding than that of a less effective liberal governance system. After all, we are in a country where culture and history enhance the centrality of information that eliminates distances and influences choices, a country that not surprisingly has made asymmetry a doctrine.

We mentioned mutual needs; if at the end of the ends Paris is worth a Mass, then strategic, economic and political aspects were well worth the meeting between Biden and Xi as part of the Asia Pacific Cooperation summit, where, ça va sans dire, the impalpable cloud of fentanyl has spread accompanied by the shadow of hundreds of thousands of American deaths; yet the war on drugs was and is a sensitive topic for the administration The, given that Biden first blocked the objections raised for supporting the imposition of severe penalties for drug crimes, only to then confirm his support for a partial decriminalization of marijuana.

If it is true that China seems willing to regulate the exports of precursors, it should however be remembered that similar and empty promises were also made to Obama and Trump, expressions of political parties still distant on how to protect the US southern border.

There is no point in hiding the difficulties: Biden is grappling with less than reassuring polls, while Xi searches for the magic formula to revive the economy. If it is difficult for diplomacy to change anything immediately, it is also true that even just a semblance of control could only benefit both presidents, as long as the pacts are respected and others do not suddenly appear weather balloons or new controls on exports of an economy in anoxia, given that, moreover, neither of the two countries can afford either economic troubles or the political upper hand of the falcons. A alarm bell it is for example the announcement that informs of the decrease in foreign direct investments in China, or that for the umpteenth time companies have withdrawn money, and that a significant number of very high officials have recently been fired, including the Foreign Minister, the Defense Minister, several PLA commanders.

Remembering Reagan, who managed to balance deterrence and dialogue, it must however be said that beyond the easy optimism there are points, such as those concerning navigation in the South China Sea or microchip exports which have not particularly progressed: in fact Xi has not been able to pocket any written and binding agreement; in addition to diplomatic-political effects, what actual impact could the entity have on fentanyl?

At the moment, what is certain is that anti-drug cooperation will remain a valid bargaining chip for a phenomenon triggered by the USA, where the current administration will - perhaps - be able to wave a leaflet à la Neville Chamberlain version 1938, hoping it does not follow the same fate .

In summary, no substantial points of contact have been found, given that no one intends to provide any assistance to the adversary, especially now that China is looking for a time out that gives it the breathing space to save itself from the quicksand of an economic crisis that belies the assumption that the East is on the rise and the West is in decline.

The meeting between Biden and Xi, in any case, should be interpreted with greater levity, given the perceptions that the Beijing political system draws from direct interactions between leaders, evidently committed, in the eyes of the partners, to avoiding uncontrollable friction, starting with Taiwan, a state not recognized by Washington as independent yet to be armed, and by its upcoming elections in January; or from the unsuccessful containment of the pivot to Asia of Obama, hit together with the Indo Pacific Economic Framework from the internal frond Dem, therefore it will be difficult to reach complex commercial agreements close to the elections.

It goes without saying that these episodes undermine US credibility, so much so that one concludes that democracy, after all, is not so attractive even in the presence of Chinese assertiveness refractory to compliance with international rules and law.

1 Drug Enforcement Administration

2 More recent estimates indicate that moderating the relationship between imports and fentanyl overdoses by even 20% would save approximately 3.000-4.000 lives per year with an added monetary value of approximately USD 30-40 billion.

3 China, with over 5 thousand companies making up the pharmaceutical industry, is the largest global exporter of basic chemical ingredients and precursors for the production of methamphetamine and ketamine destined for countries producing illicit drugs in South East Asia, then destined for Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Europe (Germany, Belgium, Czech Republic, Holland).

4 Headquarters of the CCP adjacent to the Forbidden City

5 The operations of the GdF should not be underestimated, which highlighted the close collaboration of some members of the Chinese community of Bologna who are experts in money laundering with members of the 'Ndrangheta and South American narcos.

6 Among the notable arrests was that of the son of actor Jackie Chan, who in 2009 was appointed anti-drug ambassador by Beijing.

7 Drug possession is punished with a fine of 280 euros and 15 days of detention in a rehabilitation centre. For the masses, forced detoxification can last up to three years to which another three can be added. Drug addicts are no longer considered mentally ill.

8 In China, the consumption of synthetic drugs has reached notable levels, starting from the quantities seized, 20 tons in 2000 to 35 in 2020.

9 The 69,5% of hirers concern the unemployed, to which must be added 17% of farmers, followed by workers with 5%, entrepreneurs with 3,5%, employees with 3,3%. In 49 there were around 20 million drug addicts compared to 680 thousand in official statistics in 2000. Today we are talking about at least 40 million occasional users and 7 million regular users.

10 China was included because the US changed the legislation by adding the countries of origin of the chemicals needed to produce the drug.

11 Cainiao, an Alibaba company, has increased its presence in the EU by expanding its air and trucking networks, building a hub in Belgium and establishing a partnership with Germany's DHL.

Photo: Xinhua