China Sentences Fentanyl Smuggler to Death in Apparent Bid to Appease Trump in U.S. Trade Talks

China handed a fentanyl smuggler a suspended death sentence on Thursday, in a well-publicized trial apparently designed to appease President Donald Trump. The U.S. leader has demanded that Beijing take a more active role in stemming the flow of opioids into his country.

The suspended death sentence—which The Wall Street Journal reported is usually commuted to life in prison—was handed to fentanyl producer and smuggler Liu Yong. Eight others received jail terms ranging from six months to life for their role in the enterprise.

The case represented the first time that Chinese and American authorities cooperated to convict fentanyl traffickers. The rampant opioid epidemic in the U.S. is exacerbated by the drug, which can be up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

The vast majority of fentanyl used in the U.S. is imported, most of that coming from China. Large amounts are often smuggled through Mexico, though Americans can also buy the drug online direct from Chinese labs, which then ship the product to the customer.

Trump has repeatedly demanded that Chinese President Xi Jinping do more to stop the flow of fentanyl, tying the issue to the long-running trade negotiations between the two mammoth economies.

Though Chinese officials have consistently downplayed the amount of fentanyl coming from the country, Beijing has committed to squeezing supply lines and working with American agencies to soothe Trump and his senior aides and improve the chances of a deal to end the spiraling trade war.

Earlier this year, China said all variations of fentanyl would be considered controlled substances, effectively outlawing products used to produce the drug. Though experts questioned Beijing's ability to enforce the new law, its introduction was seen as a significant signal to the U.S.

On Thursday, Chinese authorities invited foreign media outlets to the courthouse in Xingtai, some 250 miles south of Beijing, to witness the ruling. This is an unusual move apparently designed to publicize the government's tough line on fentanyl trafficking.

The bust seized around 26 pounds of fentanyl following an initial tip-off from the Department of Homeland Security. The New York Times said the case began with an arrest by the Drug Enforcement Administration in New Orleans in 2017, which led investigators to uncover Liu's network.

Yu Haibin of the National Narcotics Control Commission told a press conference that U.S. officials helped their Chinese counterparts on six cases. Thursday marked the first conviction, while three other cases were under investigation. Yu was joined by diplomats from the United States Embassy.

"On the China side, we have cracked down on all the sales, production and smuggling-related aspects; we hope that it will have a positive effect in the U.S. too," Yu said.

However, he claimed there was no political element to the investigation. "Drug crime is the public enemy of all mankind, and shouldn't be linked to trade war or any other political reason," he told reporters.

China, US, fentanyl, trade war, death sentence
Police stand guard outside the Xingtai Intermediate People's court in Xingtai, China's Hebei province, on November 7, 2019. WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Correction (11/7/19): The headline of this article was updated for clarity.