Why China invited foreign journalists to a court after teaming up with US to jail fentanyl smugglers

  • Video report by Asia Correspondent Debi Edward

It is rare for China to invite journalists, especially foreign journalists to cover court cases, so it was clear when the invitation came that the authorities wanted to give this case a high profile.

They had laid on buses to collect us from the train station in Xingtai and although there was tight security around the court our passage into the building was smooth, by Chinese standards.

We were whisked up to a room on the first floor of the building where a screen had been set up for us to watch the sentencing of a drug kingpin and his network.

It was taking place elsewhere in the building.

It took the judge 20 minutes to sum up the case and then there were some gasps in the room as Liu Yong was given a suspended death sentence.

It will be commuted to a whole life term in two years for good behaviour.

  • What police found in the laboratories

His two main accomplices were given life sentences and the remaining 6 received prison terms ranging from six months to ten years.

While they were handcuffed and taken away by police, we were driven to a nearby hotel for a press conference.

China's Narcotics Control Bureau took the lead in describing the facts of the case and were the only ones available for our questions.

But it was American intelligence that initially exposed this gang. They had been running an investigation called Operation Diana.

They had identified a target, known only by that name, and in November 2017, they finally got the lead they needed.

What police found during the raid.

A bank transfer from ‘her’ was traced to Xingtai in Hebei Province, around 250 miles south of Beijing.

Chinese officers were then able to pursue the lead and quickly tracked down and raided production labs and two distribution centres.

A total of 12kg of fentanyl was seized, enough to kill six million people. This group, of 21 people in total, were responsible for the manufacture, sale and distribution.

The online site which was being monitored by US Drug enforcement officers was advertising fentanyl, amphetamines and tranquillisers, all of which were available mail order to the United States and Canada.

They made their drop offs and collections at a local shopping centre, mailing the lethal drugs in small packages.

After they were arrested the authorities found 50 addresses in the US who had attempted to buy drugs online from ‘Diana’.

Chinese and US enforcement officers hold a press conference on cracking down on fentanyl trafficking. Credit: AP

The joint operation marks a watershed in cooperation between China and the United States.

It has been somewhat lacking the past, both sides blaming one another.

President Trump has repeatedly pinned the blame on China for supplying the fatal fentanyl which led to almost half a million deaths in the US in the past 20 years.

He has brought the issue up during trade talks with President Xi Jinping of China.

The Chinese authorities have consistently denied criminal drug gangs in this country are responsible for a majority of the overdoses, and instead question what domestically is driving the huge addiction crisis in American, which has been declared a national health emergency.

Chinese officials have emphasised their efforts to crack down on suppliers.

The criminals sentenced today were not part of the largest of fentanyl networks, and were just one of potentially thousands operations across China.

This case was however the first of three now being worked on together by the Chinese and US drug enforcement agencies.

The Homeland security officials who were part of this first joint victory were diplomatic in their response today, recognising that this partnership could save thousands of American lives.