A group of U.S. senators visiting Beijing expressed hope Tuesday that they had opened the door ever so slightly to government talks with China on its role in the fentanyl crisis ravaging America.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is heading the group of three Democrats and three Republicans, said Chinese President Xi Jinping had indicated he would consider Schumer’s request to appoint a high-level official for talks on the issue.
“I asked him directly to do that, and he didn’t say no. He didn’t,” Schumer told reporters at the end of the delegation’s stay in China. “He could have said, ‘First, as we said before, first remove the sanctions.’ He didn’t say that.”
China has refused to hold talks on fentanyl unless the United States lifts trade restrictions placed on a Chinese police forensics science institute in 2020. The fact that Xi did not reject the senator’s request outright could be hailed as progress – which reflects how low U.S.-China relations have fallen.
China, following earlier talks with the U.S., stamped out the production of fentanyl within its borders, but the U.S. alleges that Chinese companies are now supplying the chemical ingredients for fentanyl to Mexican drug cartels.
The visit by the first congressional delegation to China since 2019, and recent visits by the U.S. secretary of state and treasury secretary, have raised hopes that the two countries can find a way at least to stabilize their relationship. Both sides are trying to arrange a meeting between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden next month, when the United States hosted the APEC summit.
The senators made trade and fentanyl their main focus in their meetings with Xi and other Chinese government officials.
Senator Maggie Hassan, a New Hampshire Democrat, said she spent the majority of her time talking about fentanyl.
“I wanted to … let the Chinese officials know how this epidemic has affected my small state,” she said, saying it affects 1.4 million people and causes about 500 overdose deaths every year.
The U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, said the senators made more progress on the issue than he expected. Burns, who said he has been pushing the issue for 19 months with little success, credited the senators’ sharing their stories of how fentanyl is affecting their communities and people they know.
“What we heard back was expressions of sympathy for the American people,” said Burns, who accompanied the senators to their meetings. “And I think a willingness to find a way forward in this very difficult conversation were having. So we’re not there yet, but I actually want to credit each of the senators here.”
Even if Xi were to follow through on Schumer’s request for high-level talks, it won’t be an easy issue to resolve. Chinese state media made only brief mention of the fentanyl issue in its coverage of the senators’ meetings.
Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said fentanyl was an area of disagreement in the talks, with the Chinese side differing with the senators on its ability to control the crisis.
Xi suggested the United States needed to look internally at the reasons behind the fentanyl use epidemic, Hassan said. Chinese government spokespersons have said the U.S. shouldn’t blame others for its own policy failures.
Hassan said she told Xi that the U.S. had taken major steps to address the problem and that “now we need China to acknowledge its role and we need to work together.”