British Prime Minister Theresa May’s declared war on Chinese factories that produce fake medicines carried with it a caveat: Help us curb the illegal trade in tainted drugs and harm to healthcare will strike back.
Britain also intends to close the gates of its research institutions to Chinese colleagues working on artificial intelligence and computer science and not carry out a planned extradition treaty with China, she announced Monday in Beijing, in a series of moves likely to worsen already tense relations with Beijing.
The British government had made a series of joint announcements with China aimed at stemming illicit sales of medicines, biotechnology, gene editing, and drones that authorities say are supported by China. Yet in leaving labs off its cybera in addition to withdrawing Chinese staff from universities and research institutes, it is turning back opportunities for joint ventures.
“We have had a number of meetings with our Chinese counterparts. A number of things have been agreed. And some of those things that I said I was going to announce on Monday do not go forward with the strong commitment that we had,” May said at a joint news conference with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
With both sides digging in on contentious issues, the initiatives also seemed at odds with May’s tone at the start of her Beijing visit. “It’s my ambition for the UK to be a leading hub of artificial intelligence,” she said as she kicked off her trip.
Merchants of questionable medicine have stepped up the pressures as the United States has moved forward with a fight against counterfeit medications. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, more than half of $36 billion in fake medicines seized globally in 2017 were manufactured in China.
The U.S. trade representative’s office in 2017 recommended that President Trump sign a request allowing the U.S. government to slap “economic sanctions” on foreign companies and individuals believed to be facilitating the manufacture of counterfeit medicines. “These kinds of attacks on the safety of Americans’ medicines are brazen and dangerous and we will not tolerate it,” said John Ross, a spokesman for the office.
China has sought to distance itself from the unsavory business of making fake drugs. “We will eliminate illegal medicine manufacturing activities,” state news agency Xinhua reported last month. “China is committed to play a constructive role in international drug control in order to ensure drug supply and drug quality at a reasonable price, to promote safe life and to improve the health of people.”
Since the international backlash of the opioid epidemic, with drug companies blamed for serving large volumes of drugs when they know about small quantities that go unsold, all interested parties have called for strategies to counter fake and unapproved medicine.
Last month, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released a draft “strategic guidance” document with a call for more international cooperation in stopping illegal sales of counterfeit and under-approved drugs.
The British government’s actions, though, betray its underlying strategy, according to Charles F. Zentai, an expert on the China-U.K. relation at the RAND Corporation. “It’s making a statement that Britain is not a partner, and so must not be doing certain things and so goes at their level. It’s a posturing of a relationship that is increasingly distant.”
Shortly after she arrived in Beijing, Chinese state media prominently displayed how the Chinese government had enabled the British regulators to clamp down on a company that imported fake drugs, including those made by Pfizer, which has about 2,000 Chinese workers, according to Bloomberg. It was unclear whether Chinese authorities acted after Britain expressed its dissatisfaction, but Chinese state media called it a collaboration that showed their “extremist attitude toward counterfeit medicine.”