This is part one of a two-part series examining China’s arms trade.
China is one of the world’s top small arms producers, and the products of official arms companies such as Norinco (北方工业) make regular appearances in conflicts around the globe. In 2014, Chinese arms and ammunition export totaled at $161 million, out of which sporting and hunting long guns constituted $12.75 million (UN Comtrade; NISAT). Despite the country’s position as one of the world’s largest arms producers, strict Chinese gun laws are designed to ensure few, if any, of its own citizens have the legal right to keep arms. Much less noticed is China’s growing problem with domestic production of illegal firearms, which have helped fuel a recent spike in crime.
Even hunting, which is sanctioned on paper and, according to China’s legal code should allow a limited number of guns for hunters, is curtailed, as licenses are no longer issued. Moreover, the penalties for gun ownership, and anyone caught involved in manufacturing, sales or ownership of guns can potentially receive a minimum of three years imprisonment. The crime can also carry a life sentence or the death penalty (Xining Public Security Bureau, July 27).  Despite these restrictions, Chinese police continue to discover and bust sizable gunrunning networks on a regular basis. A recent raid in Hunan’s Shaodong province seized 1,180 guns, some 1,300 parts and 6 million rounds of ammunition—prompting the question, why, despite the tough gun laws in place, does China’s illicit gun trade continue to flourish (People’s Daily Online, November 28)? Judging by available evidence, China’s expanding gun trade is a byproduct of its well-to-do population’s growing demand for illegal goods. However, the existing ban, which makes legal gun purchases for law abiding citizens nearly impossible, has resulted in the disproportionate allocation of guns to criminal groups, adding new challenges to the maintenance of public and social order.
Identifying the Customers
Government intervention in the economy almost always has unintended consequences. High tariffs encourage smuggling, and bans on certain commodities creates black markets where products may still be traded. Similarly, China’s underground gun trade is a result of the state’s attempt to ensure its security by subduing market forces. But as long as a constant demand exists, there will be entrepreneurs willing to take risks in supplying the goods—and Chinese demand for guns is on the rise. Thus, the initial step to understanding China’s illegal gun trade is analyzing the demand side.
Customers can be classified into two categories. The majority consists of players in China’s criminal underground, the “black society” (黑社会), that straddle the line between the legal and illegal worlds—owners of massage parlors, coal mines, night clubs—and who must interact with career criminals on a regular basis.  According to a 2013 study, 63.2 percent of Shanghai’s inmates arrested on gun-related charges have previously been involved in drugs, illegal gambling, and prostitution. These individuals need guns mainly due to the high-risk nature of their work, and usually obtain guns from suppliers within their criminal circle.  Despite the restrictions on even the most basic of guns, some mobsters even have access to high-power weapons. One notorious example is Liu Han, a mobster and businessman in Sichuan Province closely associated with disgraced security czar Zhou Yongkang. To push through business deals, Liu frequently used a team of enforcers armed with military-grade weapons to intimidate and even murder his competitors (NetEase News Online, February 20, 2014; Sina News Online, April 24, 2014). 
Another type of customer who constitutes a significant minority is the general gun enthusiast, who has a legal occupation, but want to own a gun to satisfy personal interest, for hunting, or simply as a trophy. Generally coming from China’s rising middle-class and nouveau riche, these customers are growing and are known for their readiness to spend liberally for quality arms. 
Tracing the Supply Chain
The gun trade is a free market economy open to new entrepreneurs. The learning curve is moderate, but ultimately it is quite easy for anyone to join the commercial activities as long as he or she has the knowledge and proper connections. Before entering the industry, one must first acquire the relevant technical know-how. The traditional way of doing so is finding a gunsmith (枪匠). Police crackdowns on China’s traditional gun making hubs—Songtao County of Guizhou in particular—have forced gunsmiths with generations of passed-down expertise to leave for opportunities in the big cities.  Yet, finding people with such skills is hard because of the invisibility of this kind of labor market to most people. But in the digital age, joining the right Internet forums and QQ groups opens up a world of information that includes anonymous advice on anything gun-related, detailed gun blueprints, and scans of ordinance factory manuals that were considered secret just decades ago.
To be successful in the knowledge acquisition stage, one must first learn the language of the trade, i.e. the “black talk” (黑话). Dodging the Internet police is a part of Chinese online life and an argot was created to connect gun enthusiasts safely. Asking directly about guns (qiang) is too risky, so gun enthusiasts substituted qiang for gou, meaning dog in Chinese, as it is the homophone for the English word gun. Referring to one another as gouyou (狗友), literally “dog-buddies,” Chinese gun enthusiasts call assault rifles chongfenggou (lit. assault-dog), air guns qigou (lit. air-dog), shotguns sandangou (lit. loose-bullets-dog), handguns shougou (lit. hand-dog) and ammunition gouliang—dog food. 
For any business to operate, it must have goods in stock. Buying smuggled guns made outside of China is possible, but it is more cost-effective to manufacture locally. Most gun parts can be made without much difficulty. With a gun blueprint, an entrepreneur can easily replicate parts en masse at a hardware workshop or at home if they have the machinery. Some specialized parts and processes, such as barrels and riffling (cutting a spiral groove along the inside of a barrel to impart spin on a bullet) require less common tools. Barrels with rifling can only be purchased at specialty shops in certain parts of the country (mainly Guangdong) or online. 
Online hunting and military affair forums provide access to private QQ groups serving as virtual gun expos where sellers and buyers meet, network and trade.  Pricing is competitive, and sellers market their products by offering better prices and services.  Although scammers do exist, the majority are serious businessmen looking to make sales. Upon sealing a deal, the buyer would be directed to a Taobao (Chinese Ebay) store and pay for a legal product (Hangzhou Daily, March 1, 2013). The seller will then mail out disassembled parts of a gun in separate packages to the buyer.  Orders come with instructions on how to reassemble the gun, but the buyer may still contact the seller, or an after-sales service agent in the network for further assistance on reassembling, test firing, or returns and refunds. Once the buyer is satisfied, all record of sales will be erased. Despite the covert nature of the transactions, gun sales of all types continue to increase. As an examination of a recent case shows, the rewards for those willing to risk the law can be great—though the punishment if caught, even greater.
The Gun Trade in Action: the Case of the “Fang Lei Network”
At 38 years of age, Fang Lei is a millionaire in handcuffs. Originally a karaoke bar owner of Susong County, Anhui Province, Fang built an empire on running guns. A lifelong gun enthusiast, Fang described his attitude toward guns as like “women and make-up—cannot live without [them].”  According to Fang, he wanted to own a gun since he was a child. By 2009 he had already bought two, and quickly moved from collecting to selling. After joining the online “dog-buddies” community, Fang spent 24,000 Yuan (Ren Min Bi) on two rifles. He then began advertising a brand-new version of an AirForce Condor, the most popular brand of pre-charged pneumatic air rifle among Chinese hunters on Internet forums. Orders started flooding in immediately, and Fang had to travel to Guangdong’s Foshan eight times in the following months to place orders for parts. Using barrels bought online, Fang assembled and sold the AirForce Condor air rifles, (which are just as illegal in China as assault weapons), at 7,000 Yuan each, making a 5,000 Yuan profit per transaction. As business boomed, Fang recruited more workers into his network. By the time of his arrest, his QQ group “Comma Family” had more than 300 members. To maintain security, they agreed to never video chat with one another or meet in person. Ultimately, Fang constructed an underground business empire, with him at the pinnacle, directing hundreds of sales agents across the country. According to police records, Fang’s network made at least 784 successful transactions before his arrest in 2012.  In the scheme of China’s underground gun manufacturing networks, the dismantling of the Fang Lei Network meant little. There are still thousands of similar organizations in China’s prospering illicit gun trade.
China’s expanding underground gun trade is the byproduct of the state’s struggle with market forces. The state fears an armed populace, but a strict ban on gun ownership has only created a black market where the wealthy and well-connected can still buy guns with ease. With the growth of the Chinese economy, the gun trade will continue to expand in response to rising demand from a population with money to spend and an appreciation for weapons stemming from its culture and history. Currently, the gun ban is unlikely to be lifted, yet it is necessary for the Chinese state to recognize the unintended consequences of the ban, and how it allocates guns disproportionately into the hands of black society syndicates that constitute a threat to the livelihood of law abiding citizens, a phenomenon that will have long-lasting negative consequences for social stability.
Zi Yang is a graduate student at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. He currently serves as a research assistant at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
1. Yang Jiang 杨江, 黑枪调查 [Investigating Illicit Guns], Xinmin Weekly 44 (November 2012): 54.
2. Chen Junwu 陈君武, Zheng Yonghong 郑永红 and Zhang Hongmei 张红梅, 我国非法制贩枪支犯罪的发展态势及对策 [The Trajectory of Our Country’s Manufacturing and Sales of Illicit Guns and Proposals for Countermeasure], Journal of Chinese People’s Public Security University (Social Sciences Edition) 5 (October 2011): 35; Wu Xingmin 吴兴民, 广东涉枪犯罪的特点及治理对策思考 [On Characteristics Of Gun-related Crimes in Guangdong and Countermeasures], Journal of Henan Police College 3 (June 2012): 22.
3. Pang Yan 庞岩, 涉枪犯罪的调查研究 [A Study on Gun-related Crime], Guangdong Public Security Technology 3 (September 2013): 16–17.
4. Collaboration between black society bosses and Communist Party officials is nothing new in China. The anti-corruption campaign, in fact, has unmasked many cases of such nature. For a recent reportage on a cabal of Shanxi officials, criminal syndicates and businessmen, see: QQ News Online, November 12.
5. Zhang Dezhi 张德智, 当前涉枪犯罪案件的特点及侦查对策 [Characteristics and Investigation Countermeasures of Current Gun-related Crime Cases], Journal of Liaoning Police Academy 3 (May 2012): 25; Pang Yan 16–17.
6. Chen Junwu, Zheng Yonghong and Zhang Hongmei, 31.
7. Yang Jiang, 53; The term gouyou has a meaning equivalent to American slang “dawg.”
8. Customs inspection in China is weak. Shenzhen’s Huanggang, the country’s largest port of entry only has the capacity to fully inspect two percent of the daily 20,000 incoming and outgoing vehicles. See: Cao Yunqing 曹云清, 走私犯罪的现状与发展趋势 [Smuggling-related Crime and its Future Trajectory], Journal of Jiangxi Police Institute 6 (November 2014): 30.
9. Li Min李民 and Gao Fengli 高凤立, 必要帮助犯之主犯化——以网络涉枪犯罪中提供“交易平台”和“技术信息”为例 [From Abettor to Prime Culprit—A Study of the Internet’s Role in Providing a “Trading Platform” and “Technological Information” for Gun-related Crime], Journal of Dalian Maritime University (Social Science Edition) 3 (June 2015): 81.
10. Yang Jiang, 54–55.
11. Some larger networks follow a more intricate procedure by mailing parts to different addresses around the buyer’s locality. Once delivered, the buyer may choose to personally pick-up the parts or receive drop-offs from sales agents.
12. Wang Jiangen王健根 and Xie Lei谢磊, “谁在贩枪?” [Who is Running Guns?], People’s Police 23 (December 2012):12.
13. According to Chinese law, a gun is defined as having the muzzle energy of 1.8 joules per cm2 or more. In practical terms this translates to the ability of gun’s projectile to penetrate an aluminum soda can. This also means trafficking pre-charged pneumatic air rifles carries the same legal consequences as trafficking firearms. See: Ministry of Public Security, March 22, 2011.