HomeInvestigationsFentanyl Case Shows China's Scary Ability to Adapt

Fentanyl Case Shows China's Scary Ability to Adapt


In October 2017, two Chinese men—Xiaobing Yan and Jian Zhang—were indicted for conspiring to manufacture and distribute “large quantities” of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs in the United States. Although they used multiple names and company identities over a period of six years, investigators were able to trace the fentanyl shipments back to four clandestine labs and two chemical plants in China.

It was the first known indictment of Chinese nationals for the production of fentanyl, but it told a deeper and more troubling story about the chemical industry in China: that it could and would adapt as fast as the market it services.

Fentanyl use is soaring in the US where overdoses led to the deaths of close to 30,000 people in 2017. Nearly all the fentanyl is produced in China in chemical factories such as those owned by Yan and Zhang. Much of it is sold directly to the US, sent via mail, in small, practically undetectable doses through the US postal system.

This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here

The two chemical plants operated by Yan “were capable of producing ton quantities of fentanyl and fentanyl analogs,” according to an official US Department of Justice press release. Apart from the two Chinese nationals, 19 others were indicted for conspiring to distribute the illicitly-produced fentanyl and fentanyl analogs throughout the United States.

banner download report

But Yan’s factories responsible for the fentanyl were producing a panoply of illicit substances. The nine-count indictment against Yan read like chemistry test. The government noted Yan’s production of pentedrone as well as 4-MEC (4-methylethcathinone), both noted ingredients in so-called “bath salts,” designer drugs popular in nightclubs in Europe and the US. There was also AM-2201, a synthetic marijuana. In the end, prosecutors named over 20 different chemical configurations.

Yan had obviously shifted production to fentanyl as soon as he saw the opioid become a drug of choice among the opioid-consuming population.

The indictments also provide further evidence of the substances exported from China directly to the United States and with Canada as a transshipment point, and shed light into how quickly Chinese groups can alter fentanyl-family substances to escape scheduling efforts. Yan, for example, closely monitored scheduling decisions and law enforcement activities to modify the structure of his chemical analogs to avoid detection, the US Justice Department said.

An estimated 160,000 chemical companies are currently operating either legally or illegally in China, according to the US Department of State. China’s chemical industry suffers from poor regulation, thus allowing fentanyl precursor chemicals to be diverted into clandestine labs by criminal groups, the US State Department says. A lack of oversight paired with administrative inefficiencies has also allowed illegal chemical factories to spring up and manufacture significant quantities of precursors that make their way directly to the US or via Mexico, where criminal groups are also quickly adapting to new market.

The second indictment against Zhang follows this narrative. Zhang operated four labs and exported fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, as well as pill presses, stamps, and other materials to shape fentanyl into pills in the United States, the US Justice Department said.

In addition to fentanyl, US prosecutors said Zhang was producing ANPP, acetyl fentanyl, and furanyl fentanyl, all fentanyl analogs. He’d then channeled them through freight forwarding companies that moved the chemical substances into the US via Canada hiding their activities behind aliases such as “Joe Bleau,” the Canadian version of Joe Blow.

China has attempted to control the development of countless numbers of fentanyl analogs and precursor chemicals. But during our investigation into fentanyl-trafficking networks, we found that implementation of these initiatives has proven difficult as law enforcement and drug investigators struggle to keep track of high levels of pharmaceutical and chemical output.

Furthermore, as fentanyl addiction and overdose deaths are not problems in China, it currently takes scheduling and interdiction actions at the behest of the United States, making this relationship dependent on the changing dynamics of the US-China relationship.

But some positive efforts are being made, and United States officials said that the bilateral relationship with China on this issue is open and developing. In 2015, the Chinese Food and Drug Administration made 116 psychoactive substances, along with six fentanyl analogs, controlled substances, and in February 2018, newly created controls on five fentanyl precursors including ANPP went into effect.

The impact that these controls will have on the diversion of fentanyl precursor to clandestine laboratories, or the export of said chemicals to criminal groups in Mexico and the United States, may be limited by the rapid ability of these groups to adapt.

This article is part of a series on the growing demand for fentanyl and its deadly consequences done with the support of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. See the rest of the series here

share icon icon icon

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Related Content


The routes and methods used by drug traffickers are in constant flux, but it is not easy to pinpoint the…


The U.S. government has unveiled a "new" strategy against transnational organized crime which is vintage Obama: long on politically correct…

COCA / 20 OCT 2017

A new report quantifies the progress of Colombia's coca crop substitution program under the peace agreement, and calls for US…

icon #SupportFreePress

Support Our Work

Investigating organized crime is an expensive and often risky enterprise. Reaching primary sources and getting the real story involve extensive fieldwork. Please donate. Every dollar supports our mission.