Mao Zedong famously said that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.
So it is perhaps not surprising that China’s ruling Communist Party – ever wary of potential threats and without anything akin to a Second Amendment – bans all civilian ownership of firearms.
But what precisely is a gun?
That’s exactly the question many people were asking this month after Zhao Chunhua, a middle-aged woman operating a balloon-shooting stall in Tianjin, was sentenced to three and half years in jail for infringing China’s gun-control laws.
Her mistake was that the air rifles she used were too powerful. Under Chinese law an airgun is treated as a real firearm if it expels bullets with a force of more than 1.8 joules per square centimetre.
Zhao’s six rifles each measured up to 3.14 j/cm2, almost double the Chinese limit, but they are still less than half the lowest threshold in Europe. Germany allows people to buy and operate air guns with a force of up to 7.5 j/cm2 without a licence, and France allows the same for air rifles of up to 20 j/cm2.
Legal experts agree Zhao’s guns exceeded the legal limit but they argue that the air rifles were old and were only illegal under new, much more stringent regulations that came into force in 2008.
Furthermore, Zhao is poor and uneducated. When she bought her game stall second-hand this summer, she had no idea that allowing customers to pop balloons could get her sent to jail. “Zhao’s conviction flies in the face of common sense,” her lawyer Xu Xin said. She did not cause any damage, she did no “social harm” and “there is no proof of criminal intent,” he said.
Xu and other legal experts are hoping her case might force the authorities to come up with a more “reasonable, scientific” cut-off point for illegal airguns. “The old limit used to be more like 16 j/cm2” says Deng Xueping, another lawyer.
One of Deng’s other clients was given 10 years in prison for manufacturing air rifles last year and in another high-profile case an 18 year-old boy named Liu Dawei was given life in prison for trying to bring ‘replica’ guns into China from Taiwan. At one point, Liu was even threatened with the death penalty, to which he responded with stoic humour, “If you use my own guns to execute me I’ll admit my guilt”.
Yet even as police crack down on people like Zhao and Liu, the rich and the well-connected are able to get their hands on real firearms for personal protection or even for exotic pursuits like hunting.
Last week the head of the local land resources bureau in Panzhihua (a city of 700,000 in Sichuan) shot and wounded the city’s mayor and Party Secretary before turning the gun on himself and committing suicide. In 2014 a civil servant named Wei Xiaodong accidentally shot and killed a female farmer while on an illegal hunting trip in Hunan.
Many wealthy Chinese now go abroad to hunt or slip off to places like Inner Mongolia for a weekend’s illegal shooting.
Britain’s Field Sports Channel is also one of the most watched on the video sharing site Youku and some are even speaking of a Chinese gun culture emerging.
Zhou Xiaozheng, a sociologist at Beijing’s Renmin University says an increasing number of Chinese now think of gun ownership in much the same way as enthusiasts in America do – as a fundamental right and a backstop to state overreach.
“Chinese people’s attitude towards guns is changing. Previously, most people thought it was good there was such strict control but now more and more feel having a gun is a right, a symbol of self-defence,” he says.
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