Chinese load up on guns for profit and protection

Boom in homemade arms reflects distrust of police

May 11, 2002|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LOWER YUAN FAMILY VILLAGE, China - When a feud between villagers here and a neighboring community turned violent, people didn't turn to police for help but took matters into their own hands.

The villagers made guns.

Police, after all, are distrusted because of their tendency toward corruption, and local officials can be all too easily influenced by personal connections. Better, the villagers decided, to protect themselves. Pooling together $5,000 and working from their homes, farmers here manufactured about 40 shotguns and more than 100 hand grenades.

As word of the private arsenal spread, the rival villagers backed off.

Officials here in central China's Jiangxi province seized the cache of weapons last spring and jailed the ringleaders. Villagers say officials confiscated the guns not only because they were illegal but because authorities worried the weapons might one day be aimed at the government. There had already been arguments over taxes. Would authorities be the next target?

"They were afraid we would turn against them," said Yuan Shenggen, a 75-year-old farmer and former soldier in the People's Liberation Army.

Gun ownership is virtually banned in China, but the country is awash in firearms. Last year, police seized 1.34 million guns and cracked more than 100,000 criminal cases involving guns and explosives, according to China's state-run press.

Scholars say firearms are helping drive the nation's violent crime rate, which is low by U.S. standards but rising. Between 1995 and 2000, reported robberies nearly doubled. Although the government does not provide comprehensive statistics on legal gun production, the number of firearms in society has soared in the past decade.

"Since the early 1990s, it has become a big, big problem," said He Jiahong, a law professor at People's University in Beijing who estimates firearms may have increased tenfold. "Today, we really don't know how many guns are in the hands of people."

Hundreds of villages make guns for profit and protection. Some weapons are smuggled from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Myanmar; others are made by rogue military factories, stolen from police or sold by security forces on the black market.

Zhang Jun, China's most infamous bank robber, was blamed for killing more than 20 people before he was executed last year. His arsenal of weapons included at least 13 shotguns obtained from a military doctor who bought them from a military factory in Hunan province.

Government control of armories is notoriously lax and the nation's police famously careless in their work. Last year, China's Public Security Bureau issued a directive reminding officers not to drink while armed.

Officials might have had Yang Zaisheng in mind. Yang, a policeman in southwest China's Guizhou province, collapsed in a drunken stupor one evening in a karaoke bar in 1999. When he awoke on a couch the next day, his pistol was gone.

In some of the country's poorer regions, such as Guizhou, homemade guns have proven a lucrative cottage industry. Industrious villagers can make copies of People's Liberation Army pistols for as little as $5 each and sell them for nearly $100 to neighboring counties and provinces. In the mid-1990s, police confiscated 8,772 guns - including six submachine guns and 18 cannons - from farmers in Guizhou's Songtao County.

What farmers don't sell, they sometimes use against each other.

Thirty-three people died and 210 were injured in gun battles in Songtao between 1992 and 1997, according to Southern Weekend, China's most aggressive newspaper. In neighboring Hunan province, villages used three homemade cannons in a 1996 battle that left four dead and 20 injured.

The lawlessness of some villages does not fit with the image the Communist Party projects overseas, but it is in line with the country's chaotic reality.

Under Mao Tse-tung, the party ran a totalitarian state sealed off from most of the world. After more than two decades of market reforms, the government has lost most of its control over daily life.

The party has responded to rising crime with crackdowns known as "Strike Hard," campaigns in which authorities arrest thousands of suspected criminals and courts swiftly sentence hundreds to death. Critics say such efforts exhaust local law enforcement officers and ignore deeper causes of crime, including economic dislocation, lack of faith in government and police corruption.

China passed its first comprehensive gun law in 1996, setting stiff penalties for offenses such as the illegal manufacturing of firearms. But enforcement hasn't been easy. Local officials often tolerate gun manufacturing because of the money it produces for poor economies.

"Generally speaking, the local officials will close at least one eye, so long as you don't make trouble there," said He, the Beijing law professor.

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