Ye Chuan Fa works in a cubicle. His small station is indistinguishable from those of the hundreds of employees at his chemical company, Yuancheng, which translates roughly to “extended success.” Founded in 2001, Yuancheng employs about 700 people and has branch offices all over China.
While most of his workers appear to be in their 20s, Ye is in his 60s, thin with a sagging face. He’s a self-professed workaholic. “I get sick the minute I stop working,” he said in a 2007 Wuhan Morning News profile, which also referenced his great wealth without putting a number on it. His main focus today is Yuancheng, which sells chemicals both to the general public and to other businesses. It offers more than 10,000 different compounds, a vast and head-scratching list, everything from food additives (including synthetic versions of cinnamon) to pharmaceuticals (including the drugs used in Viagra and Cialis) to collagen, pesticides, veterinary products, anabolic steroids, and precursor chemicals used to synthesize drugs, including fentanyl.
According to Bryce Pardo, a fentanyl expert at the Rand Corporation, the two most commonly used fentanyl precursors—think of them as ingredients—are chemicals called NPP and 4-ANPP. When I first started researching them, in early 2017, advertisements for the chemicals were all over the internet, from a wide variety of different companies. Later, I determined that the majority of those companies were under the Yuancheng umbrella.
Over a period of a year, posing as an interested customer, I messaged with or spoke to 17 Yuancheng salespeople, sometimes for hours at a time. These were wide-ranging conversations that touched on the company’s products, practices, and working environment, and even the employees’ philosophies about selling such destructive chemicals. The salespeople called themselves names like Julie, Sean, and Demi, and, according to an article in the Changjiang Daily, were recruited in part for their English abilities. One salesman, the director of Yuancheng’s Shenzhen branch, told me that his Chinese name is Chen Li, but that as a salesman he goes by Abel. “Below 10 kilograms is express delivery, above 10 kilograms by air,” he said in October 2017 when asked how the NPP and 4-ANPP packages could be sent to the United States.
“Food additives officially,” a Yuancheng saleswoman named Alisa said when I asked what products her company specializes in. “Steroids and 4-anpp npp underground.”
“Our products are sold to the United States less,” added Chen Li. “More is sold to Mexico.” This isn’t surprising, since most illicit fentanyl used in America, where 32,000 people died from fentanyl last year, comes through Mexico. Mexican cartels lack trained chemists to make fentanyl from scratch, so they buy precursors in bulk from China. After that, making finished fentanyl is simple.
Though it’s difficult to know for certain, if the size of its sales force, the quantity of its shell companies, and the strength of its advertising are any indication, it appears that Yuancheng has sold more of the NPP and 4-ANPP used illicitly than any other company. It has done so not through secret underground networks or terrorist cells, but over the internet, using an army of young, perky sales representatives. Posting cheeky job advertisements on the internet and offering employees free cellphones, it’s a poison factory operating in plain sight.
Yuancheng lists its address on its websites and invites interested customers to come by for a visit. In January 2018, while I was in China, I did exactly that.
Posing as a buyer, I answered an online advertisement for fentanyl precursors and was put in touch with a Yuancheng salesman who called himself Sean. We arranged to meet at the company’s main office in Wuhan, in the Wuchang district, near a busy subway station in a blue-collar neighborhood. The posted address put Yuancheng at the corner of a chaotic intersection. No large sign announced the company’s presence, however—only a small one in an alley not visible from the street. Reached by cellphone, Sean said that he himself was not actually available, but that a colleague who called herself Amy would be waiting in the lobby of the Home Inn (a Chinese budget hotel chain) at that intersection.
Yuancheng’s entire Wuhan sales operation is based out of this dilapidated eight-story edifice, and shares the space with the operating hotel. The facility has seen better days, with crumbling windowsills, cracked paint, and stained floors. A room without a window costs as little as $17 a night.
After about 15 minutes, Amy arrived in the lobby, along with another young woman, who, with a laugh, introduced herself as Amy as well. They were friends since school who had studied English together and had been selling chemicals at Yuancheng for three years. Neither spoke particularly strong English, but both were exceedingly friendly. They led me down a back hallway, up an elevator, and then past a locked gate into the company’s offices, which were partitioned off from hotel guests.
Sitting down in a small meeting room, one Amy offered a steaming cup of hot water, while the other got to work taking my order. “How many do you want?”
I claimed to be interested in chemicals including a steroid called nandrolone decanoate, which is illegal to possess in the United States without a prescription. The Amys were eager to comply, noting that it sold for $1,800 a kilogram, and asked whether I was interested in anything else. I asked about the two most popular fentanyl precursors, NPP and 4-ANPP, but I already knew that my timing was bad. In late 2017, China announced that it would schedule both of them, and Yuancheng immediately stopped selling them. (The law went into effect on February 1, 2018.)
“It is illegal in China now,” one of the Amys said, regretfully. “We do not sell it, because we are legal company in China.”
I said that I nonetheless remained interested in making fentanyl, and wondered if they would be able to sell me other chemicals for this purpose. There was a pause, followed by a short conversation between them in Chinese. One Amy left the room to get more information. Eventually she returned and said that, yes, Yuancheng would be happy to sell me these chemicals. “You can ask Sean to find similar products for you,” she said.
After our discussion, I requested a tour of the Yuancheng facilities, which the Amys, amused, were happy to provide.
Two floors of the facility were crammed with salespeople, perhaps two or three hundred, most in front of desktop computers at cubicles that were red and gray on one floor, green and gray on the other. It was a bustling place, with cold-calling, deals being struck, and money being made. Salespeople offered to speak with potential customers on just about any app or platform they desired, fitting for a company that calls itself “the first e-commerce conglomerate in the chemical industry” in its Chinese ads.
Many employees seemed to be fairly recent college graduates, and most were wearing thick coats. Like other places I visited in China, it was cold inside. The facilities were a bit drab, but with plenty of natural light, and the environment wasn’t unpleasant. Employee cubicles were filled with plants, stuffed animals, and other personal tokens familiar in Western offices.
Other aspects of their working experience differed sharply, however. As confirmed by numerous employees, Yuancheng salespeople work nine hours a day, six days a week, though this is not particularly unusual in China. About 20 to 30 percent of their salary—at least for some employees—appears to come from commissions. As for the pay, one Yuancheng saleswoman who requested anonymity said, “New staff is not high wages,” but that some employees made a decent salary.
Ye Chuan Fa was right at his own cubicle, also wearing a thick coat. As the Amys introduced him, he stood up and stuck out his hand. He didn’t speak any English, but smiled and offered a chair and his business card, which had his information in Chinese characters on one side and in English on the other. He didn’t seem suspicious, nor ask any personal questions.
“This is our head office,” he said. “We have 30 branch companies in China.”
He spoke for a few minutes about his business, but the Amys’ translation skills quickly petered out without revealing how many chemicals Ye’s company manufactures itself. Salespeople said they had two factories, one in Shenzhen and one in Wuhan. “Our factory [in Shenzhen] is the only NPP plant in China,” Chen Li told me over Skype in December 2017, before noting that production had been discontinued. He said the Shenzhen factory had also been producing 4-ANPP, and that it was not open to outsiders.
“Most of the steroids we make at our own factory,” said one of the Amys. “Not all—most of.” It too was off-limits. “We cannot go into the laboratory. Our boss say, for safety.”
“For security,” added the other Amy.
In February 2019, I called Ye Chuan Fa and revealed my identity as a journalist, speaking to him through an interpreter. He didn’t deny selling fentanyl precursors: “Anything that the country schedules, we don’t sell. As long as it’s scheduled, we won’t sell it. If it’s not scheduled, we can sell it.”
He did claim, however, to be uninformed about these chemicals’ use. “We don’t know much about these things,” he said. “We make raw materials. Not finished products. We are factory to factory.” I disputed this assertion—that his enterprise sold only to other companies—noting that numerous Yuancheng salespeople had tried to sell me precursors as an individual.
I inquired about the other, still-unscheduled fentanyl precursors Yuancheng salespeople were still trying to sell me, but he denied knowledge of these chemicals. When I asked him why Yuancheng mailed some of its chemicals in disguised packaging, with the promise to evade customs, he went uncharacteristically silent.
After I said goodbye to Ye at the office in January, my tour with the Amys continued downstairs. There, they offered a surprising revelation: The workers live on the premises, in dormitory-style rooms housing four to seven people, on average. In fact, the Amys were roommates. They presented the personnel department, and then, on the bottom levels, a pair of canteens where employees take meals. Inside the kitchen, the Yuancheng company chef chopped up meats and vegetables for that night’s dinner with a large cleaver.
Dorm environments like these are not uncommon at Chinese companies, and the free room and board is part of Yuancheng’s sales pitch. Its ads promise that successful employees will be able to “buy a car within 10 years and a house within 20”—considered particularly desirable traits among singles—and many ads mention a variety of perks, including free cellphones, a pension, the possibility of domestic and foreign travel, “occasional dinner parties,” and “six types of insurance.”
All in all, it would be an appealing offer for a recent college graduate; most have no idea they may be selling ingredients for the world’s most lethal drug, and have little idea what they are actually offering. “I don’t know buyers’ usage,” Sean wrote on Skype. “I don’t care about it.”
“NPP is a sensitive products. Why you buy it?” one Yuancheng saleswoman asked me on Skype, before the product was scheduled in China. “I know many people buy it. But I don’t know what it is used for.”
I explained that it was used to make fentanyl.
“I know fentanyl,” she continued, “but why people use it? We Chinese don’t use it.”
It’s highly addictive, I said.
“Yes, I know it is a bad products to person,” the saleswoman admitted, “but I still sell it, so sometimes I feel guilt. NPP is not forbidden in China, so we can sell. I sell it, because I want earn money, earn a living.”
This post was excerpted from Ben Westhoff’s upcoming book, Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.