By Jonathan Landay
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury on Wednesday imposed sanctions on three Chinese men accused of illegally trafficking fentanyl, acting three weeks after President Donald Trump accused Beijing of reneging on pledges to stem a flood of the highly addictive synthetic opioid into the United States.
The trio included a father and son indicted in Ohio last year on charges of producing and smuggling fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances. The third man was indicted on similar charges in Mississippi in 2017.
The trafficking operations the three allegedly run “are directly contributing to the crisis of opioid addiction, overdoses, and death in the United States,” Under Secretary of the Treasury Sigal Mandelker charged in a statement.
The United States had pressed China to arrest Fujing Zheng and his father, Guanghua Zheng, and Xiaobing Yan since their indictments. However, all three and five other Chinese citizens indicted in the United States for fentanyl trafficking have remained free, according to a U.S. Congressional Research Service report last December.
The United States is in the middle of a major trade war and other serious disputes with China, making it uncertain whether the Treasury Department action would have any impact on Beijing. Some experts believe any crackdown by Beijing will depend on meaningful progress toward resolving the trade war.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, tapped by Trump to oversee efforts to fight the opioid crisis, told reporters the administration would “continue to name and shame and prosecute and punish people who are peddling their poison into our kids and into our communities.”
The three men sanctioned on Wednesday were designated as foreign drug kingpins by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control under a law that freezes any property they control in the United States and bars American citizens from doing business with those properties.
The three also face penalties ranging from civil fines of up to $1.1 million per violation to more serious criminal penalties, the Treasury Department said in a statement.
Fentanyl is a cheap, relatively easy-to-synthesize opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin that has played a major role in the devastating U.S. opioid crisis. Fentanyl and all of its analogues are controlled substances subject to strict regulation in the United States.
More than 28,000 synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths, mostly from fentanyl-related substances, were recorded in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
U.S. officials say China is the main source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that are trafficked into the United States, much of it through international mail. Beijing denies that most of the illicit fentanyl entering the United States originates in China.
The Treasury Department action came three weeks after Trump accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to meet his promises to crack down on the deluge of fentanyl and fentanyl analogues flowing into the United States.
China fired back at Trump, calling his charge “blatant slander” and saying Beijing has made “unprecedented efforts” to halt illicit fentanyl production and trafficking.
Xi last December told Trump he would act. China announced a May 1 expansion of state controls to include the more than 1,400 known fentanyl analogues, and new ones developed in the future. Analogues have slightly different chemical makeups, but all are addictive and potentially deadly.
Speaking in Beijing on Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China and the United States were cooperating on the anti-narcotics front, and had communicated on specific cases. He did not elaborate.
(Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Lisa Lambert; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; editing by Jonathan Oatis)