Business booms at a Chinese test range

May 28, 1994|By Robert Benjamin | Robert Benjamin,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- In his plaid pants, golf shirt and sun hat, the Japanese businessman slowly squeezed the trigger of a rocket launcher -- sending off a sudden burst of smoke, a concussive boom and a sizable shell into a barren mountainside a half mile away.

"Aaaaah," came the deep growl of satisfaction from the middle-aged tourist as he staggered back from the weapon. "Fantastic."

Such thrills meant it was business as usual yesterday at the China North International Shooting Range, about an hour's drive north of Beijing near the Great Wall.

The range is located within a weapons research center affiliated with China North Industries Co., or Norinco, the Chinese military conglomerate that has been making and sending to the United States hundreds of thousands of weapons a year.

For those with enough money, the shooting range offers the chance to fire anything from a small pistol to an anti-aircraft machine gun. These arms include the Chinese-made assault rifles and handguns that President Clinton announced Thursday he wants to ban from entry into the United States.

Such ranges using military weaponry were ordered closed by China's central government last year. But this one is special. While tourists are no longer brought out here by the busload, the range has quietly remained open for business.

This is because this range also functions as a showcase of Norinco's smaller arms to potential bulk buyers from abroad. An attached exhibition hall shows off the company's export line: from Saturday night specials to the cheap SKS semiautomatic rifle so popular in the United States these days.

Exports of these and other firearms to the United States may bring $100 million to $200 million in annual sales to Norinco and other Chinese military firms. But those running Norinco's range claimed yesterday to know nothing of Mr. Clinton's decision to ban their products.

"This gun is not for sale here, but you might be able to get it in America," the range's manager explained coyly as he pointed to an SKS. Hundreds of thousands of these Chinese-made assault rifles were imported by the United States last year.

China's Foreign Ministry was hardly so indirect in issuing a statement yesterday welcoming Mr. Clinton's decision to renew China's most-favored-nation (MFN) trade status, but decrying the president's parallel move to ban U.S. imports of the Chinese-made weapons.

But on the national TV news here last night, the Foreign Ministry's statement came toward the program's end after a long list of insignificant items -- indicating the Chinese leadership may opt to not trumpet its MFN victory domestically, likely because that could provoke questions here about human rights.

"The current situation offers a historical opportunity for the enhancement of Sino-American relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Wu Jianmin said. But then he called on the United States to soon remove all remaining sanctions against China -- including the weapons-import ban -- saying they held back good relations.

A leading Western human rights group yesterday also had a mixed reaction, calling the president's weapons ban good for gun control in the United States but not for human rights in China.

"No one can be opposed to a ban on exports of guns and ammunition to this country," Sidney Jones, executive director of Human Rights Watch/Asia, said in a statement issued from New York. "But as pressure on China, it's meaningless. Is a ban on guns going to persuade China to release jailed dissidents? The only big winner from this decision is the Chinese government.

"President Clinton has effectively removed all pressure on China to improve its human rights practices," Mr. Jones said.

"Clinton has left his administration looking vacillating and hypocritical, while the Chinese leadership . . . has emerged as hard-nosed, uncompromising and victorious."

A Beijing dissident said yesterday that U.S. pressure had only gained the release of certain well-known dissidents from jail and had not really made much of a difference in the human rights picture here.

"It's no use if only prison stars are released," Ding Zilin said. "What about those who are not famous? There are still many people imprisoned."

Ms. Ding's teen-age son was among the hundreds killed in the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests five years ago next week.

The elderly professor has boldly carried on a one-woman campaign to compile a list of protesters killed by the Chinese army -- a campaign that has cost her job and brought her almost constant surveillance by security agents.

"I welcome the help from other countries," she said. "But the real help can only be done by ourselves. . . . I do see a bright future for human rights in China someday, but it will be very hard and slow."

U.S. businessman, however, foresee things getting much better for them very quickly.

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