“Yellow Peril”—How Blaming China for Fentanyl Continues a Racist Legacy

As the overdose crisis roars on, various stakeholders seek to assign blame for these mostly preventable deaths. Harm reductionists point towards politicians who continue the failed War on Drugs that criminalizes and stigmatizes people who use drugs, preventing them from accessing resources needed to keep themselves safer. Activists like Nan Goldin decry corporations like the Sackler family’s Purdue Pharma. Anti-drug moralizers hold the people using drugs to be responsible.

And then there is President Donald Trump, for whom racial and national others are usually at fault.

“It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. Postal System from China,” tweeted Trump in August 2018. We can, and must, END THIS NOW!” He has also continually hyped the issue of drugs including fentanyl coming across the border from Mexico.

While many misguidedly identify opioid prescribing as the current driver of overdose deaths in the United States, Trump grasps the lethal impact of fentanyl being cut into supplies of “street” drugs like heroin. But his alarmist response, setting his crosshairs on China and Mexico, is unjustified.

The Trump administration makes China out to be the cause of the overdose epidemic. For example, back in September 2018, the title of a House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee hearing was changed from “Tackling Fentanyl: Holding China Accountable” to “Tackling Fentanyl: The China Connection” in the days leading up to the event. The original title clearly reduces responsibility to China. It also misses the point of harm reduction: that people, given the proper resources, can stay safer when using drugs.

This American scapegoating begs the question: Is blaming China for the US fentanyl-related overdose crisis xenophobic?

Some would say not, citing data that show the most potent US supply of fentanyl arrives from China by mail. This is plausible, given China’s booming and comparatively unregulated chemical industry. As “the single largest exporter of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) in the world,” notes the RAND Corporation, a major think tank that studies such issues, the under-regulated Chinese chemical industry has been able to produce and sell fentanyl and its precursors abroad with little state oversight.

“We don’t have the data infrastructure to generate a ballpark figure.”

But Trump’s hasty characterization of Chinese fentanyl exports as “pouring into the US” is perhaps inflated. Undoubtedly, “China remains an important source of synthetic opioids and fentanyl precursors entering North America,” as RAND’s Bryce Pardo testified before the name-changing House Subcommittee. But the exact quantity is unknown.

“Just tried estimating [the quantity of US-consumed fentanyl coming from China]… and we don’t have the data infrastructure to generate a ballpark figure,” tweeted Beau Kilmer, co-director of RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center.

“The United States has no proof that most fentanyl in the country comes from China,” said a member of China’s National Narcotics Control Commission. “It’s highly irresponsible to draw such a conclusion based on some individual cases.”

Pardo has even pointed out, in an article he co-authored for Foreign Affairs, that Trump’s push for China to crack down on producers by implementing a blanket ban on fentanyl analogs will not end the overdose crisis. Rather, even if the ban were to be successful in China, the market would relocate fentanyl production to another country with similarly lax regulations, like India, as Pardo suggests.

This contention is supported by what we know of the consequences of unregulated drug markets: The “balloon” or “freelancer” effect means that if supply from one source is cut off, other suppliers will spring up, often with additional negative consequences such as associated violence. The “iron law of prohibition,” meanwhile, describes how suppliers in illegal markets are incentivized to produce more concentrated and potent forms of drugs.

Why, then, is China coming under such scrutiny?

Historical and Continuing “Yellow Peril”

For John K.W. Tchen, an historian and founder of New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America, it boils down to the historical continuation of “Yellow Peril.” He characterizes this as a Euro-American “political paranoia” that China “will do to us what we can’t quite acknowledge we did to them.” This refers, among many things, to the British Empire’s use of opium exports to China, leading to the mid-19th century Opium Wars and bolstering Western imperialism in the region.

Pardo highlights what could be an exemplar of Yellow Peril in the age of the overdose crisis: that “Some in the White House have suggested that China is intentionally shipping fentanyl to the United States to get even with the West for the Opium Wars.” Pardo dismisses this accusation, labeling it as “unproductive.”

We are at a moment of deep oriental phobia that easily tips towards Chinese being blamed for the opioid crisis,” Professor Tchen told Filter in an email. “There are no angels when profiting from addiction is played out over a high-stakes, international supply chain. But we have to acknowledge its more complex legal and illegal dynamics.”

The Yellow Peril anxiety that China is trying to destroy Euro-American society has continued through the 20th century and beyond.

Blaming China for the overdose crisis must also be considered within the genealogy of policing Chinese-American communities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After all, a drug war was launched to control opium use among these communities, as noted by Dr. Kim Sue, a medical anthropologist and medical director at the Harm Reduction Coalition.


Assaults on Chinese immigrants and Chinatowns were undergirded by the Yellow Peril fear that they represented economic and public health threats to the rest of the population. One Virginia newspaper opined in the 19th century that “the Chinese ‘are sowing among us vices worse than those that caused the fall of ancient empires and the most terrible evils which Chinese immigrants are bringing to these coasts are not to the industries, but through opium,” recounts historian Diana Ahmad.

The Yellow Peril anxiety that China is trying to destroy Euro-American society has continued through the 20th century and beyond. In around 2010, panic broke out in the US about a “rising China,” as TIME dubbed it. This fear held that American jobs were being “stolen”—an anxiety reminiscent of that surrounding the Japanese economic boom in the ’80s—and ended up turning violent with the murder of Detroit factory autoworker Vincent Chin.

The near-supernatural, malevolent toxicity attributed to Chinese lead is similarly seen with state rhetoric around fentanyl.

Trump’s contemporary trade war is rooted in a similar anxiety: that China is exploiting US businesses and stealing trade secrets—or is simply surpassing the US at its own game of capitalism. More comparable to the fear of Chinese fentanyl were the 2007 recalls of Chinese-produced toothpaste and children’s toys tainted with lead. This spawned a media panic that implicitly instructed Americans to be wary of commodities with the label Made in China.

The law enforcement response to fentanyl has similarly come to conflate China with fentanyl itself. A 2017 Drug Enforcement Administration briefing guidebook advises first responders that “Opened mail and shipping materials located at the scene of an overdose with a return address from China could also indicate the presence of fentanyl.”

The 2007 lead panic “was transmogrified into something that looked less ‘environmental’ and more like another figure in the war on terror, a war that marked the diffuseness, unpredictability, and sleeper-cell provenance of enemy material,” writes feminist scholar Mel Y. Chen.

The near-supernatural, malevolent toxicity attributed to Chinese lead is similarly seen with state rhetoric around fentanyl. Drug Enforcement Administration guidance to officers urges them to always don “nitrile gloves, an N-95 dust mask, eye protection, disposable paper suit or paper coveralls,” citing the widely recognized myth that skin-to-skin contact with fentanyl could be deadly. Although the DEA is accurate that even “2-3 milligrams of fentanyl [could] induce respiratory depression, arrest and possibly death” in some people, medical experts say that claims like the DEA’s are overblown.

“For opioid toxicity to occur the drug must enter the blood and brain from the environment,” writes the American College of Medical Toxicology. “Toxicity cannot occur from simply being in proximity to the drug.”

Poster-Child Victims and Reframing Blame

The 2007 recalls and the current overdose crisis have both touted similar poster-child victims: white youth. More than a decade ago, parents were warned to think twice before purchasing Chinese-made toys for their children, who, according to Chen, were represented through the figure of “the vulnerable child, more frequently a young, white, middle-class boy.” Today, the young white male adolescent has come to be the national figure around whom the opioid overdose response rallies and portrays as an idealized victim.

Total blame is placed on a distant, foreign other to direct attention away from root causes born at home.

Trump exemplified this in his key tweet on the issue, writing last year: “The Senate should pass the STOP ACT – and firmly STOP this poison from killing our children and destroying our country.”

“Yellow perilist scapegoating obscures the effective analysis of US political debates,” writes Professor Tchen in a co-authored essay on Yellow Peril. “At the same time, the politics of resentment and suspicion provoke some, desperate to hold on to what they imagine to be theirs, to harass, discriminate, and attack their “un-American” neighbors.”

And that’s the problem: total blame is placed on a distant, foreign other to direct attention away from root causes born at home.

“Chinese fentanyl did not create America’s opioid crisis,” writes Pardo, “rather, Chinese fentanyl is merely meeting America’s appetite for opioids.”


Illustration: Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 1887 via Chinese in Northwest American Research Committee

Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard @SessiBlanchard

Sessi is Filter's staff writer.

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