From China, with bullets

Huge U.S. arms bust focuses attention on Beijing's role in the illegal gun trade

Published May 23, 1996 5:47PM (EDT)

Authorities are calling Thursday's bust of an arms smuggling ring originating in China the biggest in U.S. history. Seized in the sweep were 2,000 assault weapons, worth an estimated $4 million, and at seven American and Chinese suspects, including two representatives of giant Chinese arms companies. The bust is certain to further complicate America's already troubled relations with China. It also raises disturbing questions about China's role in the burgeoning illegal gun trade.

We talked to Michael Klare, director of the Peace and World Security Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts. Klare, the author of "Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws: America's Search for a New Foreign Policy," recently published in paperback by Hill & Wang, is also working with the Federation of American Scientists on a study of the global light arms trade.

How big a deal is this bust in terms of the worldwide trade in small arms?

These kinds of deals are happening day in and day out. There is a vast, lucrative international black market trade in small arms and light weapons. Think of the pictures we see from Liberia -- teenagers running around with guns; warlords in Somalia who pretty much chased our troops out of Mogadishu. All these people depend on this global underground traffic in AK-47s.

How big a role does China play in this international black market?

China is one of the major suppliers, along with the former Soviet union, the United States and some European countries. China is especially noted for the Type 56 rifle, a copy of the Russian AK-47 -- probably the most popular weapon in the world today -- which they produce much more cheaply. In terms of bigger weapons, China has taken a fall since Saddam Hussein is no longer a major customer for their tanks and missiles. My guess is that China is now pushing lighter weapons to make up for the shortfall, and because the global market for them is increasing.

How closely is the Chinese army -- and the government -- involved in the trade?

Norinco and Polytech, the two companies supposedly involved in this bust, are directly owned by the Chinese armed forces. We also know that many high-ranking government officials place their children and relatives in senior management positions in these companies partly as a way of bringing cash into the hands of the senior leaders in China.

The U.S. government presumably knows this. What could it, or should it do?

The U.S. itself is probably the leading supplier of light guns in the world -- both from government sales and the black market. People come into this country and buy them from commercial gun stores and then smuggle them out of the country. That's the leading way in which the narco-traffickers in Latin America get their guns; they come from Florida, Texas and California and stash them in small planes that brought in cocaine. The U.S. is the main transshipment point for Chinese and Russian light arms going to Mexico, Colombia, Peru and places like that. So before the U.S. can turn around and tell other countries to stop what they are doing, they will expect us to do a better job of policing our own.

Still, this comes at a bad time for U.S.-China relations, what with China's Most Favored Nation status about to be debated in Congress, a trade war possibly shaping up, and concerns about Russia sending missile technology to China, while China sends technology to Pakistan.

The question is, how high up were government officials in Beijing involved in this transaction. If it's traced to senior officials at Norinco, then we're talking about senior officials in the government. That would be a major issue for U.S.-China relations.

Quote of the day

Digital junkies

"There can be a real sense of isolation on a large campus, and for young students, or new students, this seems like a safe, easy way to form relationships. But some go overboard. It becomes their only way to connect to the world. One of the things we're really working on now is helping students balance how many social needs they try to have fulfilled by computers."

-- Jeff Prince, associate director of counseling at the University of California, Berkeley, on the growing problem of "Internet addiction" among university students across the country.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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