WHEN five assailants armed with long knives started murdering bystanders at a railway station in the south-western Chinese city of Kunming on March 1st, the first police to respond were ill-equipped to fight back. Most had no guns, which ordinary officers typically go without. One who did quickly ran out of bullets. Some officers used their batons while others resorted, bravely but ineffectually, to wielding fire extinguishers which they found at the scene. A specially trained unit of police with guns arrived as long as 20 minutes later and shot four of the attackers dead.
The government promptly decided it must make weapons more readily available to police. It has acted quickly to do so—some critics say too quickly and too rashly. The increased deployment of guns to rank-and-file officers raises the prospect of abuses in a system that lacks public accountability for police misconduct against citizens. It has also increased the risk of mistakes by poorly trained officers who are unfamiliar with weapons. In recent months Chinese media have reported on at least two deaths in police shootings where local witnesses suggested the use of deadly force may not have been justified. In May in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, police accidentally fired a handgun into the floor at a kindergarten lecture on personal safety. A child and four parents were injured.
China bans the possession of guns by civilians, and makes only rare exceptions. The government has similarly long resisted arming police with firearms. The process of getting permission to carry a gun was often so onerous that few police bothered to try. Since the army was called in to shoot civilians demonstrating in Beijing in 1989, China has beefed up its paramilitary police force, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), in order to handle unrest. But the PAP does not handle ordinary crimes and is run separately from other police forces.
Fan Xin, a Beijing-based American expert on police firearms who worked as a policeman in Los Angeles between 2000 and 2006, says the government’s reluctance to arm the police had been partly out of fear that the guns would be misused. But this led to a failure properly to train those who did carry them. Mr Fan describes an “antiquated” system in which police are rated for accuracy in shooting at a target from a stable position on one knee, rather than for speed and judgment in more realistic conditions. He also notes that many police are trained to use semi-automatic handguns but then go on to be issued with revolvers.
Some special police units in big cities are reportedly better trained than small-town officers. The recent expansion of such units has been rapid and striking. The city of Shanghai has deployed 125 mobile units of elite armed police around the city since May, each carrying at least two guns (following America, Chinese media often describe them as SWAT, or Special Weapons and Tactics, teams). Fifteen groups of ten officers each—all in blue Ford vans—patrol one tourist district near the Huangpu river. One of them is often parked on the Bund, Shanghai’s famous riverfront, close to revellers taking wedding photographs. Another is often stationed near People’s Square; during a recent rush hour the driver and a few of the squad in the back could be seen smoking cigarettes. If a terrorist strikes on their watch, they are allowed to shoot on sight.
Some citizens worry about reckless use of police firearms, but many see a need for greater, and more visible, protection. The attack in Kunming in March appeared to be the work of extremist Uighurs, who are a mostly Muslim ethnic minority from the western region of Xinjiang. It has been seared into the country’s consciousness. State media refer to it as China’s version of the September 11th attacks against America. Xi Jinping, the president, has echoed George W. Bush, America’s president at the time, saying that China is conducting a “people’s war on terror”.
Armed police have become a feature of this war. In a Xinjiang border town in July, police shot and killed at least 59 Uighurs in a conflict that state media said was initiated by a mob of locals who attacked government offices, killing 37. Uighur groups abroad allege that the real death toll was much higher.
via Police firearms: Weaponised | The Economist.