Gun ownership booms in China Self-protection: Millions of private citizens ignore the ban on firearms and buy guns to protect themselves as armed robberies proliferate. But criminals still account for most illegal purchases.

April 09, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- When Yao Rulai goes out on business, he dons his thick gold bracelet, pockets a pack of imported cigarettes and clips on his mobile phone. And whenever he fears that his business dealings might bring him in contact with the wrong sort of people, he buckles on his latest accessory: a snub-nosed handgun.

Although owning a gun is all but banned in China, Mr. Yao has joined the millions of Chinese who have been ignoring the law and buying firearms. Some, like Mr. Yao, are otherwise law-abiding citizens who own guns for self-protection, but most guns are sold to criminals, helping to fuel a dramatic increase in armed robberies and shootings.

Gun ownership represents a seismic shift in China, a country where only a few years ago a switchblade was about as tough as it got.

The spread of guns can be traced to China's loosening social order. As the central government's strict control has fallen victim to economic reforms and corruption, factories have taken advantage of the surging demand for guns -- from criminals and worried citizens -- by making and selling guns illegally.

To be sure, the edicts controlling gun production are still in place, but officials now can be paid off by factory owners or are now simply unaware of every activity in their district. Efforts to seize huge numbers of illegal guns have netted impressive results -- 390,000 between 1992 and 1995 -- but officials acknowledge that they are just scratching the surface.

Production and licensing figures show how government efforts are falling short.

Among ordinary people, private gun ownership is banned. About 40,000 guns a year are sold legally, mostly to high-level officials and hunters living in border areas. But 200,000 guns are produced for civilian use each year, meaning 160,000 are sold illegally, according to figures published in a government-run journal.

Thousands more guns are stolen or siphoned from state security and military units, while unlicensed artisans working in villages add to the total. Demand is so great that hundreds of weapons that were distributed to the public during the anarchic Cultural Revolution of 30 years ago are being dusted off and sold.

"Guns worry the government because they are seen as a sign of social instability," said a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The government is supposed to have a monopoly on weapons, but ordinary people are now possessing them.

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

While China is not as lawless as Russia or as dangerous as the United States, gun-related crimes are increasing rapidly. Armed robberies increased 25.8 percent nationally in 1994 over 1993 and were up 23.8 percent during the first nine months of 1995 over the same period in 1994.

For Mr. Yao, a professional investor, crime played a key role in his decision to buy a gun.

"No one feels very safe out there, and I was worried that people would hear of my money and try to steal it," the 43-year-old Beijinger said. "It's purely for self-defense."

Buying the gun was the easiest part.

Everyone in Beijing seems to know that guns can be bought in Baigou, a town renowned for its black market in pornography, drugs and guns. In November, Mr. Yao rented a taxi for a day and drove four hours south to the small town in Hebei province.

There, he wandered the side streets until someone made the right offer. For the equivalent of $75 he bought a small homemade pistol that fires steel balls about 15 yards. It can kill a person at that distance.

Besides wealthy people such as Mr. Yao, gun buyers are often shopkeepers or restaurant owners in rough districts.

In the southern boom town of Shenzhen, a restaurant owner pulled a gun out of his cash drawer when asked if robberies were a problem: "Not any longer. I got this around the corner for a bit of protection from hooligans."

Guns are especially common in border areas, law enforcement officials say. A sweep last year in southern China, for example, netted 2,000 guns, 10,500 bullets and, most surprisingly, 8,000 grenades. The weapons were reportedly smuggled from Vietnam.

Especially worrisome for officials is that these border areas have a high percentage of ethnic minorities, some of whom have been agitating for autonomy. Police sweeps have been carried out in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang province, where large numbers of Turkic Muslims live. In these areas, guns seem to be seeping in from neighboring former republics of the Soviet Union, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even in the tightly controlled capital of Beijing, however, gunfights and armed robberies are widely discussed, if infrequently reported in the local news media.

In one case that was reported last year, an armed gang preyed on Russian traders doing business at a popular silk market near the city's diplomatic district. Police eventually tracked down the gang and forced four members to surrender after a tense standoff.

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