Chinese Export of Small Arms

china_gunpowder2Chinese drawing c. Tang dynasty

For over a thousand years China has enjoyed experimentation with guns. Alchemists in the Tang era chanted claptrap phrases, mixed volatile chemicals and accidentally created gunpowder, an invention used by the West later to revolutionize warfare [1]. From its spread to Europe and the development of mechanized artillery came the modern gun, bound eventually by the irony of time to return to China, now humiliated by the Europeans with gunboats for a century. In time, China would again develop firearm technology and export it abroad.

Under Mao Zedong, China’s arms export policy exclusively followed state interests; from Deng to present, the introduction of Titoist market incentives has created a new state interest: profit. The profit motive has reduced China’s political use of small arms and light weapons (hereafter, SALW) and encouraged China to deal less cautiously with SALW, which have become products of economic rather than geopolitical value to China.


The UN defines small arms as “weapons designated for personal use” and light weapons as “those designated for use by several persons serving as a crew.” Combined, the term small arms and light weapons (SALW) describes usually handheld and always portable equipment [2]. The term “political use of SALW” refers to intentional actions by a state to reduce another state’s power relative to its own. The term denotes coordinated and active state policy, not the result of an invisible hand or market incentives alone. Finally, this essay uses Edward Friedman’s definitions of Maoism, Stalinism and Titoism to describe variations within and between Leninist regimes; each line originated from its namesake but describe tendencies seen in all Leninist systems [3]. Mass campaigns occur to “combat corruption, favoritism and nepotism,” which are Maoist when they involve “solidaristic egalitarianism,” Titoist when they include “respect for autonomy, social diversity and performance criteria,” and Stalinist when they are “inner policing of the centralized bureaucratic apparatuses” [4].


Mao Zedong; 1949-1976

e15-507Chairman Mao Zedong

In international relations, Mao’s ideology emphasized development without reliance on foreign powers [5]. Mao 

collectivized the land and organized the peasants into communes. The party-state extracted capital from agriculture, used it to build state-owned industry, and returned the profits to more industrial investment. This led to rapid industrial growth in the 1950s, although growth slowed later under the impact of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. In three decades China made itself self-sufficient in nearly all resources and technologies [6].

The Party later shifted to the full Maoist idea that China must chart its own way and “must always maintain [its] own national dignity and confidence and there must be not slavishness or submissiveness in any form in dealing with big, powerful or rich countries” [7].

The Sino-Soviet Split then developed in the late 1950s, with tension gradually forming over ideological and other disagreements between Mao and the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev on Marxist theory. Khrushchev pursued a post-Stalinist policy of coexistence with capitalist states, a policy which Mao opposed but which led to talks between the USSR and the U.S. and Britain on nuclear non-proliferation. The disagreement amplified existing tensions, and in 1959 Khrushchev cut support for Chinese military programs [8]. Mao denounced Khrushchev as committing “the error of adventurism and the error of capitulationism” for perceived passivity in the Cuban missile crisis, while the Soviets praised his handling of the crisis as a “major victory of the policy of reason, of the forces of peace and socialism” [9].

norinco_type_56the Type 56 rifle

In the context of SALW, China, with the rest of the world, had primarily relied on Soviet assault rifles such as the AK-47 to equip its military. Given the principle of self-sufficiency in international affairs, and given the Sino-Soviet split in the late ‘50s, China began to develop its own variant of the AK-47, the Type 56. China widely proliferated this assault rifle; for instance, during the Vietnam war, the United States faced Viet Cong militias almost entirely outfitted with that gun [10]. Throughout the 1960s and into the 1990s, China supported 

client states, anti-Western insurgents, and others pursuing “wars of national liberation.” Arms embargoes did little to curtail local and regional conflicts as by the time the situation had escalated and the United Nations attempted sanctions, the country was awash with AKs and there was no need for more [11].

China also began to establish diplomatic relations in Africa under Mao, for the purpose of supporting the spread of socialism into the third world, which Mao defined as states exploited by imperial powers [12].

Deng Xiaoping; 1976-1992

deng_0Deng Xiaoping

Deng’s economic reform policies led to a transition in the Chinese Leninist regime from Maoism and Stalinism into a blended structure between state and market, which recalls Friedman’s definition of Titoism, where, in response to the failures of socialism, states enact policies that emphasize “respect for autonomy, social diversity and performance criteria.” Thus Deng’s theory shifted ideology (rhetorically) to prioritize economic development using aspects of markets, including the profit motive and the private ownership of businesses [13]. The profit motive is Titoist in its emphasis on performance criteria, in the respect for limited autonomy of privately owned businesses, in Deng’s moderate allowance of dissent and reestablishment of the academic sphere, and in the relatively greater social and intellectual diversity allowed.

The introduction of a profit motive undergirds all subsequent changes in arms exports. Dissent was permitted, but not to the extent of civil disobedience on firearm ownership; in fact, China had and continues to maintain one of the strictest internal gun regimes in the world [14]. Nor did private ownership of business impact small arms production, because the only firms permitted to manufacture small arms are state-owned enterprises (SOEs) [15]. So, of Titoism, only the profit motive remains.

iraq-iran-warIran-Iraq War

From 1980 to 88, Iran and Iraq fought an intense war, instigated when Iraq tried to capitalize on Iranian instability following the 1979 revolution. While financial and military support poured in from the West to support Iraq, China took a different approach: from 1986 to the conclusion of the war in 1988, it sold a quantity of 1500 HN-5A man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to both sides of the conflict [16]. One could speculate that the only reason to fund both sides of a conflict would be the hope of overall destabilization; yet, the Iran-Iraq war represents two of the world’s most already unstable states. China’s motivation, though perhaps elusive in this scenario, probably amounts to profit, gained through the desperation of war-torn states. One author comments that, when working with Iran, 

the approach of China’s arms sales representatives was also ‘business-like.’ Chinese representatives were not concerned with human rights issues or proliferation. They were willing to work with and accept Iranian demands for indigenization of production and find ways of surmounting constraints on Iran’s ability to pay cash [17].

The thesis that China disregards human rights in order to maximize profit both receives support from international experts [18] and raises concerns over the extent to which Titoism will scar China’s international image.


Current; 1992-2016

A misconception may exist that international small arm flows primarily come from the black market; this is not true, and by following the supply chain to its origin, one sees that states initiate the flow. There is significant evidence that armed non-state actors are using SALW manufactured in China [19], and, given that “all Chinese companies that are allowed to export conventional arms are state-owned enterprises” [20], one might assume direct illicit sale. Given that no record exists of Chinese sales to any non-state actor, a more probable explanation holds that China has exported weapons to states, which then resold them to non-state actors, or else weapons are stolen from ill-secured stockpiles in these states [21]. So, while illicit arms flows may pose a threat to global security, perfectly legal arms sales occur that can have an equally negative effect on human life.

libe-mmap-mdPosition of Liberia within western Africa

One should consider China’s relationship with Liberia. The Charles Taylor regime ruling Liberia formally recognized Taiwan rather than the mainland [22].  When discussions in the Security Council turned to sending a peacekeeping intervention to the Liberian civil war, China repeatedly complicated and delayed the efforts until UN officials assured China that the post-Taylor government would recognize and establish formal diplomatic relations with the mainland. One would therefore have expected China to support the Sirleaf government in full [23]. However, between 2001 and 2003, China sold to the Taylor regime via a European arms sales facilitator rifles, machine guns, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers [24]. In so doing, China “broke the UN arms embargo on Liberia” [25] but only the European consignment agent faced charges. Why did China support opposing sides of the Liberian conflict?

The Liberian timber market primarily exports to China and France; a UN panel established in 2001 to monitor compliance with the Liberian arms embargo found that funds from the timber industry “has strong links with” SALW flows into the country [26].

The Panel has stressed concerns that revenue from the timber trade – a major source of government income – is being used to purchase military assistance and that timber companies have facilitated transfers of weapons. These weapons are being used to pursue internal armed conflict between government forces and the armed opposition. . .Both sides continue to commit grave human rights abuses against civilians as fighting has intensified and spread during 2003. Liberian government forces and armed militia fighting with them are responsible for killings, torture, including rape, and forcible recruitment of children under-18 [27].

One should consider the possibility that China sees no political gain from supporting this regime. As a consequence of Titoist market reforms, China has found favorable economic incentives to produce and export small arms, and these economically underdeveloped African states happen to sate China’s demand without much objection. Or, more directly, the market for primary goods in Africa meets needs in the homeland, and that requires interaction with shadowy and often dictatorial parties; China must meet the needs of those parties to curry favor and eventually gain access to their raw materials.

That small arms sales are no longer fully political in nature comes as a consequence of Deng’s introduction of market incentives and removal of Mao’s economic self-sufficiency principle. For example, contrast China’s exports to Vietnam and to Liberia: in the former, direct state interests led to export of arms to solidify political power; in the latter, market incentives led to business deals that probably could have been made elsewhere, but indirectly contributed to the support of a repressive regime.

Be cautioned not to understate the severity of these business deals; some are incredibly bad ideas. For example, in the 1990s China exported SALW to Zaire, a poor central-African state run by the dictatorial Mobutu. In defiance of the UN arms embargo, Mobutu funneled weapons into Rwanda to support the Forces Armées Rwandaises (FAR), the Rwandan army, which conducted the genocide [28]. In a less serpentine manner, China directly sold weapons to FAR [29] and later to ex-FAR Hutu militia groups, each sale in defiance of the UN arms embargo [30].

Legal Framework

The UN Program of Action (POA) on small arms outlines potential measures for states to implement that would minimize exports to repressive regimes and requires signatories to submit annual or bi-annual reports to the UN. China has released several reports, none of them specific or moving beyond shifting the blame to purchasing states; China holds that poverty and social instability are the main causes of illicit transfer of SALW and should therefore be addressed by all states collectively [31]. Notably, China has “never provided detailed information in a POA report on its responses to requests for information filed by UN panels of experts about SALW that have been found in destinations subject to UN arms embargoes” [32].

china unroca
UNROCA website, link here for SALW page

China suspended reporting to another UN body, the UN Register on Conventional Arms (UNROCA), ostensibly because the US listed Taiwan in its UNROCA report in 1997 as a “recipient state,” when China considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory [33]. This act of protest means that China no longer reported data to international experts on SALW, nor collected it, until the US removed Taiwan from the category of “recipient states” and listed it just as a “recipient” in 2007. China has not signed the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) and reportedly pushed back against inclusion of SALW in the definitions of the treaty [34].  

In the post-cold war era, China has increasingly used the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs to oppose Western attempts at humanitarian intervention and to ground China’s international talking points against humanitarian law and human rights [35]. Chinese regulations on SALW, or any other type of weaponry, contain no language stipulating that sales be denied on grounds of human rights violations [36].

Conclusion; Geopolitical Hypocrisy

Western commentators who analyze China’s SALW policies without giving consideration to their own state’s actions commit a particularly sinister geopolitical hypocrisy. For example, the United States in 2012 exported more SALW than any other state [37]. While one could err on the side of understating human rights abuses by governments receiving small arms from China, one could most definitely err on the side of understating the degree to which this has decreased since the Mao era; in fact, the introduction of a profit motivation by Deng has rendered SALW just another economic tool, rather than a device of intentional state violence.

[1] Brenda J. Buchanan, Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History  (NY: Ashgate, 2006) 42.
Mark Bromley, Mathieu Duchâtel, Paul Holtom, et. all. China’s Export of Small Arms and Light Weapons. (Stockholm: International Peace Research Institute, 2013). Box 1.1.
Edward Friedman. “Three Leninist Paths Within a Socialist Conundrum,” in Dorothy Solinger, ed., Three Visions of Chinese Socialism. (Westview Press, 1984). 11-19.
Ibid., 15
“China’s Foreign Policy: The Historical Legacy and the Current Challenge.” Asia for Educators, Columbia University,  2009. << >>
William A. Joseph, Politics in China: an Introduction, Second Edition. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2014). 177.
 Austin Jersild. “Sharing the Bomb among Friends: The Dilemmas of Sino-Soviet Strategic Cooperation” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2013.
Alfred Low, Sino-Soviet Dispute: An Analysis of the Polemics (NY:  Associated University Press, 1976). 131.
[10] Gordon L. Rottman, The AK-47: Kalashnikov-series Assault Rifles. (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2011). 48.
Ibid., 48.
Jing Men and Benjamin Barton, China and the European Union in Africa: Partners or Competitors? (NY: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011). 221.
Joseph, 178.
See for example the policy Cap 238, Firearms and Ammunition Ordinance, a policy which sets a 14 year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of a firearms.
Bromley, et. all, 1
Bromley, et. al, 40.
[17] John W. Garver, China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post Imperial World (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006). 80.
[18] cf. “Secretive Arms exports stoking conflict and repression,” Amnesty International, 2006.
[19] Bromley, et al., vii.
[20] Ibid., 1.
[21] Ibid., vii.
[22] Evan S. Medeiros, “China’s International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification” (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2009). 185.
[23] cf. Nicholas Cook.  “Liberia’s Post-War Recovery: Key Issues and Developments”. Congressional Research Service, 2008. 9.
[24] Bromley, et. all., 44.
[25] Ibid., 44
[26] “A Catalogue of Failures: G8 Arms Exports and Human Rights Violations.” Amnesty International, 2003. 42
[27] Ibid., 42.
[28] Damien Fruchart, United Nations Arms Embargoes: Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour. Case study: Rwanda, 1994–present (Stockholm: International Peace Research Institute, 2007). 14.
[29] Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 13.
Bromley, et al., 7.
Ibid., 8.
Ibid., 8-9.
[34] Ibid., 10.
[35] Ibid., 31.
[36] Ibid., 31.
Small Arms Survey Yearbook 2015, Small Arms Survey, 2015. 4


“A Catalogue of Failures: G8 Arms Exports and Human Rights Violations.” Amnesty International, 2003.

Bromley, Mark,  Duchâtel, Mathieu, and Holtom, Paul. “China’s Export of Small Arms and Light Weapons.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2013.

Buchanan, Brenda J.. “Gunpowder, Explosives and the State: A Technological History,” NY: Ashgate, 2006.

“China’s Foreign Policy: The Historical Legacy and the Current Challenge.” Asia for Educators, Columbia University, 2009.

Cook, Nicholas. “Liberia’s Post-War Recovery: Key Issues and Developments.” Congressional Research Service, 2008.

Friedman, Edward. “Three Leninist Paths Within a Socialist Conundrum,” in Dorothy Solinger, ed., “Three Visions of Chinese Socialism”. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1984).

Fruchart, Damien. “United Nations Arms Embargoes: Their Impact on Arms Flows and Target Behaviour. Case study: Rwanda, 1994–present.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2007.

Garver, John W. China and Iran: Ancient Partners in a Post Imperial World, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

Jersild, Austin. “Sharing the Bomb among Friends: The Dilemmas of Sino-Soviet Strategic Cooperation” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2013.

Joseph, William A. Politics in China: an Introduction, Second Edition. London: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Low, Alfred. “Sino-Soviet Dispute: An Analysis of the Polemics.” Associated University Press, 1976.

Medeiros, Evan S.. “China’s International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification.” RAND Corporation, 2009.

Men, Jing and Barton, Benjamin. China and the European Union in Africa: Partners or Competitors? NY: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2011.

Rottman, Gordon L. “The AK-47: Kalashnikov-series Assault Rifles.” Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2011.

“Secretive Arms exports stoking conflict and repression,” Amnesty International, 2006.

“Small Arms Survey Yearbook 2015,” Small Arms Survey, 2015. N.D.

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