State-run Chinese media have expressed skepticism that the country is a key source of fentanyl, despite an agreement with the RCMP that was seen as a tacit admission of China's role in fuelling the unfolding overdose crisis in Canada.
A Globe and Mail investigation last year revealed how fentanyl is manufactured in China and how easily it is shipped to Canada, and border officials here have intercepted dozens of such shipments. Last November, the RCMP announced an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security to stem illicit fentanyl exports, citing recent seizures of fentanyl and carfentanil, an even stronger opioid, that originated in China.
At the same time, media reports in China have played down the country's role.
"It is unsubstantiated to assert that China is the top source of the synthetic opioids that have killed thousands of drug users in the U.S. and Canada," said an article in Reference News, a Beijing newspaper published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
The newspaper, citing China's National Narcotics Control Commission, said such assertions "lack the support of sufficient numbers of actual, confirmed cases."
News.163.com, a news website, said China is concerned about the international perceptions of the country's role in the opioid trade and has been trying to stop the manufacture and export.
The Canadian agreement followed a similar arrangement with the United States, announced last September. B.C. Premier Christy Clark was among those calling for the federal government to reach an agreement with China, citing the ease with which small amounts of fentanyl can be shipped through the mail without detection. The Canada Border Services Agency has previously said that its officers made 32 fentanyl seizures between May and September of last year.
The Globe's investigation found fentanyl can be ordered online, and its high potency allows it to be smuggled in small packages through regular mail. Once in Canada, the drug is cut into, or made to look like, other drugs including cocaine, heroin and oxycodone and sold for considerable profits.
Dr. Robert Gordon, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University near Vancouver, said including denials in state-run media was a "diplomatic way" for the Chinese government to respond.
"China is trying to soften its image of being identified as the major source of fentanyl [coming to Canada], like many other countries," he said. "But in many ways, RCMP and CBSA have got hold of information pointing that China is or has been the major source [of fentanyl] "
Still, Dr. Gordon said the denials won't have an impact on the agreement between Chinese government and RCMP.
"It is not like they are not going to co-operate to solve the problem any more," he said. "It's just a claim."
Officials at the Chinese consulate in Vancouver could not be reached for a comment.
The Reference News coverage suggested it's difficult for China to effectively crack down on the export of illicit drugs.
"It's difficult," wrote Fangyu Zhu in a Reference News article. "If we set regulations on one substance, they [chemists] can always find a substitution or synthesize slightly different, then it's a new, legal substance that can be exported."
B.C. declared a public-health emergency last year because of an increase in fatal overdoses. As of Nov. 30, the were 755 fatal overdoses across the province, the majority of which were linked to fentanyl.