BEIJING -- President Clinton's move yesterday banning U.S. imports of Chinese-made guns strikes at the source of one-third of all firearms and more than half the rifles brought into the United States each year.
But the import ban may not seriously hurt the Chinese military conglomerate making most of these weapons. And it does risk alienating politically the Peoples Liberation Army [PLA], a key Chinese organization with which the United States has been trying to restore contacts.
The United States issued permits last year allowing the import of about 2 million weapons from China, according to figures provided by the U.S. Embassy.
Most of these were military-style rifles, such as the MAK-90, a knock-off of the well-known AK-47 assault rifle. Some of these weapons would be banned by crime bills under consideration by Congress, but one of the most popular makes, the semiautomatic SKS, would not be affected.
China is the world's lowest-cost producer of rifles and handguns, and virtually all guns made here come from factories controlled by the PLA -- particularly the factories of China North Industries Co., or Norinco.
Norinco is the Chinese military's largest conglomerate, with more than 300 separate enterprises and research institutes. Like most PLA companies, it has turned aggressively in recent years to producing and marketing nonmilitary products.
More than 70 percent of the company's income now comes from civilian products, according to published reports.
Norinco makes more than half of China's motorcycles and more than one-third of its minivans, at some factories in joint ventures with Japanese firms.
It is believed to take in hundreds of millions of dollars yearly from exports of heavy or high-tech arms -- sales that likely dwarf its receipts from exporting handguns and rifles to the United States. Nevertheless, the U.S. trade can be lucrative, particularly in illegally fitted rifles.
Norinco was accused this spring by Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms officials of violating federal gun laws by exporting to the United States tens of thousands of illegal rifles.
The rifles were fitted illegally with muzzles threaded to receive silencers or mounts for grenade launchers. Some could be converted into machine guns.
In announcing a recall of the rifles, ATF officials admitted that the weapons entered the United States because of the difficulty of checking every shipment closely.
For some diplomats, this suggests that importers may be able to circumvent the U.S. ban on Chinese guns by shipping them through third countries -- much as importers of Chinese-made towels sidestep U.S. textile quotas by shipping through the Philippines and other countries.
"Looks like we'll have something else to work on soon," a U.S. Customs agent said yesterday.
Even if the U.S. ban does not hurt the PLA's pocketbook, it risks making enemies within the Chinese military -- a risk at odds with U.S. policy.
The PLA is one of China's most powerful political forces. The Pentagon launched a drive last fall to resume high-level contacts with the Chinese military, in part because of the belief that it will play a key role in the likely political struggle after patriarch Deng Xiaoping's death.
"The PLA isn't going to like being singled out in this way," a Western diplomat said. "But they're going to be hard pressed to argue in the international arena for a right to sell guns in the United States. In fact, even many Chinese can't understand why the United States has let them sell guns there all along."