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.