China has been under fire in the lead-up to the Olympics for its support of human rights atrocities in Sudan, Tibet, and Burma. The Chinese government’s recent shipment to Zimbabwe of 77 tons of weapons and ammunition in the midst of post-election violence in that country can now be added to the list of China’s bad acts. While China describes its arms sales to the governments of Zimbabwe and Sudan (which it has outfitted to the tune of at least $55 million in small weapons since 2004) as “prudent and responsible,” it is difficult to see how selling arms to governments not at war is either.
China’s latest transfer to Zimbabwe is particularly troubling: when the ship left China, the Mugabe regime was on the brink of an election that observers predicted would end in violence. When Mugabe’s ZANU-PF failed to win a clear victory, the government withheld election results and unleashed a storm on violence on opponents and the general population. If not for the objections of South African trade unions and civil society, and the intervention of the Durban High Court, over $1.2 million worth of Chinese AK-47 ammunition, mortar bombs and rocket-propelled grenades would be in ZANU-PF’s hands.
China defends its weapons sales on the grounds that it respects the sovereignty of its trading partners. But in Sudan, these arms are used to kill civilians in Darfur, and in Zimbabwe, to crush political opposition by terror. In Sudan, a United Nations Security Council arms embargo seeks to stop arms from getting into the hands of battling forces in Darfur, and China’s continued transfer of arms to Khartoum thwarts that goal. In Zimbabwe, while no arms embargo exists, it is clear that the military, not at war with any other country and in the midst of a contested power struggle, can only intend to use the weapons against its own people.
The Chinese government has claimed that African countries have not objected to its arms transfers. Surely, recent events in Zimbabwe, where local trade unionists have refused to unload arms from the Chinese ship, the Anglican Bishop has decried the arms shipment, and the High Court intervened, should count as a strong and vocal objection.
More information about China-Zimbabwe arms sales:
- The arms shipment currently attempting to reach Zimbabwe left China on March 15, two weeks before the Zimbabwean elections on March 29. The sale was agreed as early as January 2008. The ship arrived in Durban, South Africa, on April 14, just over two weeks after the elections.
- Observers had widely predicted that the election would result in a violent government crackdown. The Mugabe regime has a history of election-related violence. The last Presidential election in March 2002 was preceded by months of brutal repression of opposition supporters, resulting in 50 deaths. Mugabe defeated opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, but the election was declared seriously flawed by international observers.
- As a result of the 2002 election, the United States and the European Union imposed travel restrictions and asset freezes on several senior Zimbabwean officials, and banned arms sales to Zimbabwe.
- China, in contrast, reportedly sold at least $66 million worth of small arms to Zimbabwe within the two years preceding the 2002 Presidential election.
- Since 2004, China has sold 139 military vehicles and 24 combat aircraft to Zimbabwe.
More information about China-Sudan arms sales:
- From 2003 to 2006, the period covering the worst abuses by Sudanese government forces in Darfur, China sold over $55 million worth of small arms to Khartoum.
- Since 2004, the year in which the United Nations Security Council imposed an embargo on arms transfers to Darfur, China has been the near-exclusive provider of small arms to Khartoum, supplying approximately 90 percent of Sudan’s small arms purchases each year.
- Observers on the ground in Darfur have reported seeing Chinese weaponry, including grenade launchers and ammunition for assault rifles and heavy machine guns.
- China is Sudan’s largest trading partner overall, serving as the destination for more than three-quarters of Sudan’s overall exports in 2006. Sudan began exporting oil in 1999, largely as a result of Chinese investment in its oil sector. Since then, Sudan’s purchases of small arms, small arms parts, and ammunition have risen dramatically. By 2005, Khartoum’s small arms imports had risen to more than 680 times their 1999 levels.