“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” -Mao Zedong
An ironic statement, considering the fact that guns are banned in the hands of Chinese citizens and American gun culture is an oft-mocked phenomena in China’s media. However, a country with some of the strictest gun laws on Earth, is now home to a growing gun culture, with reports of firearms incidents going back as far as 1996.
China has seen increased interest in guns and gun culture, especially following a recent debate sparked by a street-game operator charged with prison time for having airguns that were considered weapons under China’s current laws. This debate is not new; last year a Chinese teen was charged with arms smuggling after purchasing replica guns. His attorney’s argument, that the definition of a firearm was too narrow, fell on deaf ears; “Shoot me with my guns. I will plead guilty if they are capable of killing me!” The judge granted the teen leniency and sentenced him to life imprisonment instead of death because the teen was only 18 years old at the time of the crime.
The interest in guns and their scarcity has also created an air of sophistication around them. Shooting ranges and shooting clubs have risen across the country, catering to elites who can choose from a selection of U.S., Russian or Chinese firearms and afterwards, lounge and relax with drinks. Wealthy businessman and retired PLA officers have ditched the golf course for illegal hunting trips into central China. The groups, and their guns, search for wild game and on a particularly good trip will eat their catches. “Guns have brought us together,” a member of a hunting group toasted in a 2008 interview. Publications on the topic have also appeared. A magazine succinctly named Small Arms has been in publication since the early 2000s and has thousands of eager readers across the country interested in firearms.
As the allure and demand for firearms increases, the underground market that has emerged has resulted in large scale seizures of firearms from multiple provinces such as Sichuan, Zhejiang, Xinjiang and Guizhou. Literally thousands of guns, bullets and even explosives have been confiscated and destroyed, often in very public displays to show security forces’ efforts in combating guns. Illicit firearms can be extremely lucrative; one gang’s business spanned multiple cities and provinces, and their business estimated to be worth nearly 10 million USD. While public burning of guns highlights the seriousness of the anti-gun effort in China, it doesn’t change the fact that guns are being introduced en masse into China and it appears there is little that can be done to stem the tide.
Gun crimes in China are also on the rise, with armed robberies, shootouts and some high profile murders using illegal firearms.
Overland smuggling has always been the standard mode of obtaining weapons and while it still continues, the black market has developed some more creative methods to deliver weapons to those that demand them across China. Internet sales through the Dark Web was prevalent through The Armory; an offshoot of the infamous Silk Road. However, a host of anonymous websites have sprung up in its wake using Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, shipping disassembled guns in multiple packages to get around customs to then be reassembled by the purchaser. The demand isn’t only met by external entities: homemade weapons factories, crude handmade guns, and the main source even seems to be from within China’s own gun factories and arsenals. China is still a major arms producer and exporter and its outputs are so large that caches going unaccounted for aren’t always an immediate cause for alarm.
Gun crimes in China are also on the rise, with armed robberies, shootouts and some high profile murders using illegal firearms. A 2008 case involving guards at a munitions dumped who got involved in an argument over a chess match that then devolved into one gunning the other down before being shot to death by the police. In 2013, a Shanghai man murdered six people at the factory he worked at over a financial dispute with a hunting rifle. A man with a history of mental illness killed two of his neighbors and two police officers in Hubei, a province in northern China, with a shotgun before being shot dead by police. 2016 saw two high profile shootings: a man in Guangdong province killed three people and injured another three over an apparent land issue before being captured by police. A judge in Beijing was murdered outside her home by a disgruntled litigant before the attackers killed themselves with a homemade gun. The most recent case, involved Chen Zhongshu, a senior official in Sichuan province, who shot the local mayor and party chief before turning the gun on himself. How Chen acquired the firearm is still a mystery. Aside from the headline grabbing stories, the number of guns, replica guns and ammunition seized has increased.
China’s responses to news of American shootings has reinforced their beliefs in their gun control laws and is often a source of derision about Americans and their ‘love for guns.’ The Global Times, a Chinese Communist party mouthpiece posted this caricature after a firearms instructor was accidentally killed by his 9-year old student in Arizona. Chinese news portals have pages devoted to US gun shootings. However, the growing Chinese fascination with guns and the subsequent rise in Chinese gun violence suggests that this trend will continue as the government seek to downplay their own domestic firearms problems.
Charlie Song is former U.S. Army Infantry NCO and Officer turned geopolitical risk expert in the private sector, with a focus on the Asia Pacific region, the Korean peninsula and U.S. government affairs.
Photo Credit: Creative Commons CC-0