On China’s Internet, a Pro-Gun Response to Newtown

The Shanghai gun range I have frequented most is located on one of the city’s most exclusive shopping streets, just steps away from Rado, Rolex and Van Cleef & Arpels.

To be sure, the range lacks the polish of its chic neighbors. The space is drab and dusty, the staff is ornery and the beer served at the bar is warm and stale (drinking and shooting machine guns is not only allowed, it’s encouraged). But in another sense, the range shares the spirit of its pricey neighborhood: The only barrier to entry, and to the right to fire a machine gun, is the ability to pay the range’s expensive charges for weapon rental and ammunition.

Most Chinese cities have similar facilities, with bigger cities having several such spots. They cater to a large and growing number of Chinese interested in firearms. And though most customers rent their weapons, private gun ownership is more common than might be expected in a country where it is largely prohibited.

Though China maintains a high level of control over its small arms, public sentiment in opposition to such policies, and in favor of U.S.-style gun rights, is common and growing. Expressions of such a sentiment emerged particularly powerfully in the wake of the mass shooting on Dec. 14 in Newtown, Connecticut.

According to the Small Arms Survey, a research project based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, in 2007 China had the third largest number of civilian firearms holdings (behind the U.S. and India), with about 40 million. When ordered by rate of gun ownership, China’s rank dropped significantly; China had between 2.3 and 3.9 guns per 100 people, compared with the U.S. range of 83 to 97.

Gun crimes are common in China and receive considerable media attention. Gun smuggling -- an offense against the state -- appears to be the most widespread. But violence, including shootouts both large and small, receive their fair share of coverage. And while Chinese officials like to claim that such crimes are in decline, reports of massive weapon seizures suggest they’re battling an endless rising tide of weapons.

For all these guns, and crimes associated with them, China’s microbloggers and editorial-page writers have rarely written in favor of, or in opposition to, gun rights. This isn’t a matter of censorship: Guns can be discussed freely on blogs and microblogs. Rather, the topic appears to have lacked an event to inspire the discussion. That all changed as the news of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting reached China.

In China, the massacre had a particularly grisly resonance. Only hours before it occurred, a man stabbed 22 students and one adult, none of whom died, at a school in Henan province. It was not the first such attack: China has experienced an epidemic of school stabbings over the last few years. But when viewed next to Newtown, it gained narrative power. As many commentators, especially in the foreign media, noted, if the attacker had access to a gun, rather than just a knife, the school would almost certainly have suffered a death toll.

Much of the initial and official Chinese response to Newtown was as sincerely shocked, emotional and -- in American terms -- antigun as the reaction in the U.S. and other countries. It was also highly critical of the U.S. and its liberal gun policies.

“Blood and tears demand no delay for the U.S. gun control,” wrote Xinhua, the state-owned newswire, in a Dec. 15 commentary. In state-run newspapers, direct comparisons between the U.S. and Chinese school attacks were made, with the papers congratulating China for its antigun policies.

China’s microbloggers, too, expressed outrage at U.S. policy and attitudes toward guns. Zhang Xin, the celebrity chief executive officer of Soho China Ltd., one of China’s biggest property developers, used Sina Weibo, China’s leading microblog, to tweet her thoughts: “When I opened weibo this morning, the biggest news was the American campus shooting. . . . Honestly, can’t the politicians set aside politics and ban guns? There are always mental patients in the crowd and we can’t give guns to them.”

As of Dec. 19, Zhang’s tweet had been forwarded (or re-tweeted) more than 12,200 times. It has also generated close to 8,000 comments. While most of the early comments were supportive, by the morning of Dec. 16 the tenor of much of the discussion had turned against Zhang, with the ire no longer directed so much at the U.S., but at China and its restrictive gun laws. The congratulatory editorializing in which many Chinese newspapers engaged was absent, replaced by pro-gun-rights arguments that intimated and often expressed outright antipathy toward Chinese authorities.

“Dictatorship has brought disasters much greater than the losses from the shooting,” wrote one anonymous Sina Weibo microblogger in the lengthy comment thread. Another, in Guangzhou, wrote of the land seizures that have caused so much despair -- and unrest -- across China: “If people have guns in their hands, can the government come to your house and demolish it?”

These sorts of sentiments weren’t confined to the comment thread below Zhang’s antigun tweet. They began to appear shortly after news of the shootings broke and have steadily become more prominent on China’s microblogs. Mao Anlin, a columnist and reporter with the 21st Century Business Herald, offered a cagey tweet the morning of Dec. 15: “A man with multiple guns is sufficiently armed to protect himself, and thus Americans should adjust their policies on guns. In places where people don’t worry about suffering from governmental violence, the need for weapons which represent civil deterrence fades.... While in those places where the government commits violence against the people, the people don’t have the ability to protect themselves.”

Mao doesn’t specify the people to whom he refers at the end of his tweet, but it certainly wouldn’t go unnoticed by his Chinese followers that they don’t have the right to protect themselves with firearms.

Similarly, Yan Liang, an on-air host at Jiangsu Radio, didn’t mention China when he tweeted a Dec. 16 defense of American gun laws against their Chinese critics. The argument is similar to the pro-gun rhetoric often used in the U.S., and if it were assigned to an American blogger, it wouldn’t be worth commenting on at all. But Yan is Chinese, and he is publicly calling for the defense of rights that he most assuredly does not have:

“Many media are now condemning America’s rampant inventory of guns. They think arms merchants control the American people’s will and Constitution while the rampant guns lead to crimes... I just want to say: Guns don’t have original sin. If the control is proper, then guns can still be a symbol of civil rights. . . . This extreme case in which children were harmed is really heartbreaking, and it’s necessary to strengthen control on guns. But it is also necessary to permit people to practice self-defense with a gun.”

No doubt, Yan doesn’t have it in mind that Americans are the only people who should be permitted to practice self-defense with a gun. He just doesn’t say who else should enjoy the right.

Pro-gun microbloggers have tended to stake out two overarching positions. First, guns are an important means of earning, and preserving, civil rights. And second, blame for U.S. massacres can no more be assigned to guns than the Chinese school stabbing-epidemic can be assigned to knives.

Variations of such arguments have emerged on some of China’s most respected editorial pages. The most prominent is from Dec. 16, “American Gun Ban: An Impossible Mission,” written by Zhu Jiangming, a well-known military affairs commentator, for Southern Metropolitan Daily, one of China’s most independent and liberal papers. In his commentary, Zhu observes that many other countries provide easy, open access to weapons, but “they have few school shootings.” His conclusion is cutting:

“Thus we can see that the prevalence of privately-held guns isn’t America’s only problem. Every shooting can be regarded as the specific manifestation of specific social problems. For example, in the Batman shooting case, the gunman was surely under the long-time influence of violent movies. Likewise, the Virginia Tech shootings exposed age-old American race and discrimination problems. If we only focus our discussion on guns when a shooting takes place, we’re seeking trifles while missing the bigger picture.”

It’s a powerful sentiment, and one even U.S. gun-rights advocates might not wholly object to. But it also leads to a more local question: What, precisely, is the “bigger picture” that inspires China’s growing ranks of gun aficionados? It can’t just be the right to engage in the drunken sport shooting I’ve occasionally witnessed on Shanghai’s gun ranges.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is writing a book on the global recycling industry. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.