Pulling trigger on China

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 March, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 March, 1994, 12:00am

WHEN it comes to beating China, one would think that human rights, trade deficits, proliferation, piracy and rhino horn sales would be enough sticks to be going on with.

Not so. If America's foreign policy wonks are going through a bad period as their aggressive attempts to regulate Beijing begin to backfire, there is yet another issue bubbling under which could leave bureaucrats looking very embarrassed indeed.

China's response to Washington's human rights scoldings has often been to point out the violence on America's streets and ask the question whether that is how ''free'' citizens should be living. But what if there was a growing movement in the US which had somehow managed to link Beijing to that very violence? It is not as improbable as it sounds. Activists and the media in the US are beginning to wake up to a problem that officials have been trying to sweep under the carpet - the direct link between China, the PLA, and the amount of cheap, dangerous guns flooding America's market.

A quick analysis of Chinese-made semi-automatic guns and some recent horror stories on America's streets is sobering indeed. AK-47s, or their close cousins such as the SKS or MAK-90, were in the hands of Wayne Lo, the Taiwanese student who killed two andwounded four in a random shooting spree at a Massachusetts college; of the Oklahoma Wal-mart killer of two; and of the madman who sprayed a Stockton, California playground with bullets, killing five and injuring 29. Chinese guns are also becoming the weapon of choice of more and more drug dealers and petty gangsters, not to mention organised criminals such as the triads.

The reason? NORINCO, the state-run enterprise which makes the weapons, sells them cheap. Wayne Lo bought his over the counter for a mere US$129 (HK$995), when domestically-made rifles can cost five times that. Small wonder that according to official figures, nearly one million Chinese guns were imported into the US last year, one third of the total.

While law-abiding citizens begin to sit up and take notice, the Treasury Department, which allows the deadly flow through perfectly-legal importers, has been turning a blind eye.

UNTIL, that is, last week, when the Treasury's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) announced it has placed a temporary ban on all Chinese gun imports while it investigates some illegal weapons among the hundreds of crates arriving each week. As many as 4,000 MAK-90s, illegally upgraded with added machine gun receivers or threaded muzzles, had been discovered among NORINCO's shipments, the ATF said. This violated US laws.

But to a growing number of critics, including America's largest labour federation, the AFL-CIO, the ATF's action is a belated and weak response to a crisis situation. Even a normal MAK-90 which can reel off five rounds per magazine, is a deadly weapon inthe hands of a criminal, and should be banned altogether, they say. Such weapons get round US laws merely by adapting the stock and action to make them acceptable under the ''sporting guns'' regulations. But can there really be a million new hunters out there, every year? And according to the AFL-CIO's Jeffrey Fieldler, who spoke before a Washington forum of prominent China experts recently, the injury is being supplemented by an ironic insult: China is not only selling the guns, but importing them on behalf of the US. Hesaid companies, including some run by the PLA, were dotted all over the States, running legal businesses licensed by the Treasury to import the weapons.

''The United States consumer is directly subsidising the PLA,'' said Mr Fieldler.

His words are backed up by federal authorities, who confirmed to an NBC documentary that same night the existence of several PLA firms, and another in Detroit directly owned by the People's Armed Police. The programme's investigations took them from a visit to a Guangzhou guns fair all the way to one of the wounded victims of Wayne Lo's madness.

The woman, Teresa Beaver, whose insides were ripped apart by two bullets from Mr Lo's SKS, said: ''I just want to know, why are they [the guns] here?'' The US Treasury may find that it is not a question that can go unanswered for long.