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Enlisting Beijing to help stop fentanyl exports won’t be easy

So the RCMP and China's Ministry of Public Security have announced they will work together to combat the surge of fentanyl and other opioids flowing from China into Canada. The need for action is undoubtedly urgent. Fentanyl has been the instrument of death for hundreds of heroin and cocaine users in Canada, and CSIS intelligence suggests almost all the fentanyl comes from small synthetic chemical factories all over China.

Canada is unable to suppress the demand for it, and it is impossible to stop fentanyl from relentlessly arriving by mail in small quantities. So the only measure left is to get Chinese police to put a stop to the killer chemical from leaving the factories where it is manufactured.

For students of Chinese history, there's irony in Canada's demand on moral grounds that China suppress the export of a synthetic opioid. In the 19th century, opium addiction in China was rampant, and the opium was almost entirely imported into China from British India. In response, China implemented the world's earliest drug laws, making the sale, import and consumption of opium illegal.

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In Victorian England, however, opium eating was quite legal, and as all Chinese schoolchildren are now taught, Britain's refusal to respect Chinese law and ban the export of opium into China was a signal event in Chinese history. When the Chinese government destroyed a large quantity of illegal British opium by dumping it off the docks of Canton into the sea, Britain declared war. China's devastating defeat in that war resulted in it being forced to cede the Island of Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity under the humiliating conditions of the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The Opium War is considered to mark the modern era in China, its ultimate resolution being the expulsion of the Western imperialists after the Communist victory in 1949.

This history could explain the reported lack of enthusiasm by Chinese police to respond vigorously to Canada's request that Beijing close down fentanyl production and export. China doesn't have a significant fentanyl problem domestically. It deals with the problem by executing drug smugglers and dealers and by imprisoning illegal-drug users for a program of forced rehabilitation that they or their families pay for. In a police state that keeps close tabs on all citizens, this policy is relatively effective (although amphetamine abuse is increasing in Chinese cities, and heroin injection in the mountainous Golden Triangle border regions has led to something of a rural crisis of largely untreated HIV/AIDS cases).

Beijing is unlikely to aggressively suppress this lucrative export for the sake of international public interest alone. Undoubtedly China's fentanyl manufacturers are already issuing the necessary bribes to keep their operations free from government harassment. Moreover, Chinese culture suggests police there are only likely to actively suppress fentanyl exports if Ottawa offers an incentive to do so.

Start with money. The Chinese government would likely require that their investigation into fentanyl exports be generously funded by Canada. This is not an altogether out-of-the-way demand, as Beijing would expect that any proceeds of crime seized through the arrests of Canadian distributors should subsidize its own fentanyl-export suppression costs.

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But another condition of this pact could be more co-operation with Chinese authorities tracking down Chinese nationals in Canada who Beijing wants to see returned to China.

These are hard times for Canada – with hard choices. Not only is the federal government eyeing freer trade with China as a way to insulate Canada's economy from the ravages of an isolationist Trump presidency, Ottawa also hopes to restore the purity of our illegal heroin and cocaine from deadly Chinese fentanyl by looking to Chinese Communist goodwill and trust.

We are probably better off looking to non-Chinese solutions for both.

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