Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CHINA-CRIME: Gun Culture Cultivated by a Vibrant Black Market

Rajiv Chandra

BEIJING, May 6 1996 (IPS) - Not too long ago, it was an offence to even carry a pocket knife in China. Today, a businessman just has to stand by the right or wrong street corner long enough before someone tries to sell him a gun or he is robbed at gunpoint.

For not only have market reforms given Chinese more freedom to set up private business in China’s liberalised and expanding economy, it has given rise as well to increased crime fueled by a black market that preys on the vulnerability of both the successful and the unfortunate.

“Many people now own guns,” says a former Beijing police official. “If you want to and can pay enough, you can get firearms in many places.”

Government regulations outlawing private ownership of guns are still in effect, but in today’s market society money talks — so much so that officials are either unable to control the illegal trafficking in their areas or are bribed by gun merchants.

One Beijing banker told IPS he bought his gun in Baigou, a small town in Hebei province which neighbours the Chinese capital and has a reputation as a black market in guns, drugs and pornography.

The banker says he wandered the streets until someone made a good offer and he was able to buy a small homemade pistol that fires steel balls and could kill someone at a distance of about fifteen yards.

“No one feels very safe out there, and I was worried that people would hear of my money and try to steal it,” says the banker. “It’s purely for self-defence.”

Official statistics suggest he is among many Beijingers who have made the four-hour drive to the “marketplace” just to obtain a firearm.

Huge stockpiles of guns have been seized by the authorities — mainly in the Chinese capital. Between 1992 and 1995, 390,000 have been netted. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, officials say.

According to official figures published in the Chinese press, a total of 200,000 guns are produced and sold every year. Of these, about 40,000 are sold legally, mainly to officials and hunters. The others are unaccounted for.

Thousands more guns are stolen from state security and military units. Law enforcement officials report that about 3,000 military guns end up in civilian hands. Unlicenced artisans working in villages are a further source.

Armed robberies increased 25.8 per cent nationally in 1994 when compared to 1993, and were up 23.8 per cent during the first nine months of 1995 over the same period in 1994.

Totals for the year 1995 are not yet available, the government says.

Guns are especially common in border areas, the authorities say. Last year, in southern China, police captured 2,000 guns, 10,500 bullets and 8,000 grenades, all reportedly smuggled in from nearby Vietnam.

Especially worrying for the government are those areas with a high percentage of ethnic minorities, many of whom chafe at Chinese controls.

The market is growing so fast that hundreds of weapons that were distributed to the public during the decade-long chaos of the 1976 to 1986 Cultural Revolution are also being resurrected and sold off.

A farmer was arrested last year in Sichuan province for selling rifles and a machine gun that his father had buried during the Cultural Revolution. The father had hidden the weapons in case “class warfare” ever erupted again.

“Guns worry the government because they are seen as a sign of social, instability. The government is supposed to have a monopoly on weapons, but ordinary people are now possessing them,” says a government sociologist who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The worry is that demonstrations could turn violent, or simply that crime will get out of hand,” he said.

Police frequently raid weapons smugglers in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang, where arms frequently come in from Central Asian countries that used to be part of the former Soviet Union, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Armed gangs are increasingly a problem in urban areas. In Beijing, gangs have been tracked down for preying on Russian traders who frequent one of the city’s silk markets and even commit assassinations.

In the southern city of Fuzhou, a gang that is reported to have siphoned semi-automatic rifles from the military, staged 43 robberies with a booty of more than 100,000 over a two year period. Police eventually tracked them down and killed all the gang members in a shoot-out.

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