A senior Chinese military official, asked recently why his country sells missiles and other high-technology weapons to the volatile Middle East, cast a look of incredulity at the questioner. "For the money, of course," he replied.
But China's irresponsible arms sales are more than just an important source of hard currency for Beijing's empty government coffers. They are also a get-rich-quick scheme of the Communist elite. The scions of China's ruling families run the firms that sell arms, and the clans they represent siphon off a healthy percentage of the firms' profits.
These clans are extremely secretive, but some of their hidden connections to the arms-export complex have come to light. Poly Technologies Inc., perhaps the major arms-trading firm, is headed by Senior Col. He Ping, the son-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, China's senior leader. In 1989, company officials included Wang Xiachao, President Yang Shangkun's son-in-law; Wang Zihua, former Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang's son-in-law; and Wang Jun, Vice President Wang Zhen's son.
The Commission on Science, Technology, and Industry for National Defense, which oversees Poly Technologies Inc. and other international trading firms in the arms complex, is another plum perch for the elite's offspring. The family of China's only living marshal, Nie Rongzhen, dominates COSTIND. His son-in-law, Lt. Gen. Ding Henggao, is COSTIND's chairman, and his daughter, Maj. Gen. (Tech.) Nie Li, is deputy director of COSTIND's Science and Technology committee. Other COSTIND officials include Zhang Pin, son of former Defense Minister Zhang Aiping, and Ye Chumei, daughter of the late Marshal Ye Jianying. The Yang clan is again represented, this time by President Yang Shangkun's eldest son.
The world has gotten much more dangerous since China's great Communist clans abandoned their revolutionary calling and went into the arms business in the early '80s. Between 1983 and 1990, China signed weapons and lethal technology agreements worth more than $16 billion. Most of these agreements have involved the transfer of ballistic missiles and other high-tech weapons to Middle Eastern countries.
In 1991, the Chinese delivered M-11 series ballistic missiles to Pakistan. The M-11 is a mobile, intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile comparable to the Soviet SS-23s that were recently removed from Europe. The Chinese are also reportedly setting up production lines in Iran for both the M-11 and the M-9, which has a longer range but a lighter payload than the M-11. This is part of a 10-year technology-transfer agreement between Beijing and Teheran, signed in 1990, that may also include nuclear-weapons technology.
There are few weapons in China's arsenal that this arms mafia won't sell. In 1988 and 1989, China shocked arms-control experts by secretly shipping CSS-2 East Wind missiles, with a range of about 1,200 miles, to Saudi Arabia. It was the first time one country transferred an entire intermediate-range ballistic-missile system to another.
To Pakistan, China reportedly provided the blueprints for a nuclear bomb and then handed over enough weapons-grade plutonium for its construction. A secret U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency study circulated in 1991 concluded, in the words of one Bush administration official, that "it is the official policy of the Chinese government to covertly sell missiles to whoever can pay for them."
After learning that COSTIND had agreed to sell M-9 missiles to Syria, last May the Bush administration imposed arms-related trade sanctions on China. The curbs included cutting off the sales of computers that could be used for missile control, barring cooperation in launching satellites, and placing an embargo on all high-tech exports to the Chinese front company that sold missiles to Pakistan.
These sanctions didn't deter China's clan-affiliated firms. Last August, reports the Far Eastern Economic Review, China delivered to Syria a shipment of the Transporter/Erector/Launcher equipment used with the M-9 missile. The missiles themselves will probably follow sometime this spring.
Secretary of State James Baker ended a three-day visit to China in November by announcing that China had made important concessions on arms control. Stone-faced Chinese officials immediately disputed this claim, saying that they "may consider" signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and halting the overseas sales of missiles and related technology, but only if the United States cancels its newly imposed sanctions.
Considering China's record on weapons sales, as well as the clout of those involved in arms dealing, it is hard to take such promises seriously. On two separate occasions since last July, China has agreed to limit the proliferation of nuclear and conventional weapons, but the sales of these weapons continue. The efforts of American officials to persuade senior Chinese leaders to exercise restraint have fallen on deaf ears—not surprisingly, since their families' rice bowls are at stake. Given the millions of dollars of easy profits to be made from arms sales, continued duplicity and evasion of international responsibility by the Chinese seems likely.
As the Communist dynasty continues to decay, the problem may well grow worse. China's weapons mafia knows that it will one day be replaced by a democratic, free-market regime. The temptation of the men and women who run Poly Technologies Inc. and COSTIND is to take the money and run.
But run where? Perhaps the best way to encourage them to behave responsibly is to deny them sanctuary. William Tiplet II, a senior staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, argues that we and our allies should "very quietly inform the clans that, come the democratic revolution in China, they won't find refuge in the West if they have contributed to the nuclear arming of Middle Eastern dictators."
Contributing Editor Steven W. Mosher is the author of China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Realities (Basic Books).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "China: The Arms Mafia".