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Chinese Weapons Industry Booming as Overall Economy in Decline

Insider account provides glimpse into burgeoning Chinese weapons production
Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: February 28, 2024
J-20 stealth fighters of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) perform at the Airshow China 2022 in Zhuhai in southern China's Guangdong Province on November 8, 2022. (Image: CNS/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years, China and its people have seen conditions go from bad to worse under the Communist Party’s ruinous economic and social policies, such as the “zero-COVID” pandemic lockdowns, aggressive international posturing, and directives favoring state-run enterprises over the private sector.

But as business around the country from real estate and cars to tech and education slows, one field is going strong: the Chinese weapons production industry.

According to Lin Hui, the pseudonym of a businessman who was allowed to tour several military production facilities, the CCP regime’s focus on military expansion has led many enterprises to turn to weapons production as a means of shoring up dwindling profits.

Speaking with overseas Chinese-language outlet Dajiyuan (The Epoch Times), Lin Hui described how during his dealings with the Chinese military-industrial complex, he visited three factories, specializing separately in the manufacturing of ordnance, naval batteries, and air-to-air missiles.

Some of the weapons being produced appeared to be direct knock-offs of Western arms, while others seemed to be built to Russian specifications. All the factories Lin visited were in central China, Dajiyuan reporters Song Tang and Yi Ru reported in their Feb. 28 article.

Western guns and ammo at Chinese weapons plant

According to Lin Hui, the facility that manufactures weapons may have been a private enterprise. This company only processes metal components and sported a large showroom neatly filled with various aluminum gun parts. Many of the parts on display required advanced tools and production methods.

“They are all aluminum products cast and molded in one step,” Lin said, suggesting that the factory produced intermediate parts for subsequent assembly.

Photos taken by Lin, who is mainland China, at the weapons factory show cannon shells and small arms parts, including those for rifles resembling the American M-16, as well as handheld grenade launchers.

(Image: Provided to The Epoch Times)

The factory was the recipient of a certificate and plaque from the “208 Institute,” a research unit under the China Ordnance and Equipment Group, Ltd., recognizing it as an “excellent collaborative work unit.” According to the Dajiyuan report, the 208 Institute is responsible for the research and development of light Chinese weapons, such as small arms, which are supplied to the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and police forces.

It was “relatively easy” for Lin to secretly take pictures at the small arms plant, but he found it impossible to do the same at the missile factory. “They were very strict. You absolutely couldn’t take out your phone to take photos, and there was someone accompanying you the whole time,” he said.

Su Ziyun, director of the Faculty of Strategy and Resources at Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan, told Dajiyuan that based on the photos provided by Lin Hui, it is difficult to determine the size of the shells pictured. Su speculated that the ammunition would be produced according to either Russian sizes (122mm or 152mm), or the standard NATO diameter, 155mm.

He noted that the shell lacked a fuse, which would probably be inserted at another facility.

Analyzing the photos of the small arms, Su said that the aluminum alloy parts would decrease their weight. The barrel and bolt of the weapons, however, would have to be made of steel.

What stands out is that the Chinese weapons factory seemed to be producing Western-style weapons and ammunition.

Such arms and munitions, Su said, would not be distributed to Chinese or Russian regular forces. However, there could be a need to produce Western-style weaponry such as for “a special unit, such as a brigade equipped with Taiwanese weapons” that “might pretend to be part of the Taiwanese military and use Western weapons” in the event that the CCP invades the island.

Taiwan’s army uses mostly American-built military equipment.

Mainland Chinese special forces would also be able to use any Taiwanese ammunition they managed to capture, Su added, though the main invasion force would use Chinese weapons.

Chinese weapons on both sides of the Russo-Ukrainian War?

In addition to use by PLA special forces, Su Ziyun told Dajiyuan that the Chinese weapons plant could also be producing Western-spec arms with the intention of selling them to Ukraine via a third country.

The equipment could, for instance, be sold to clients in Turkey, a NATO member, which would then resell them to the Ukrainian military.

China has been accused of selling military equipment and supplies to Russia, which invaded Ukraine two years ago, but there has yet to be conclusive indication that this includes lethal weaponry.

However, artillery shells and rockets from North Korea have been used in the Russian war effort, which expends thousands of shells on a daily basis. One photo posted on Russian social media in 2023 shows a shell bearing an ultra-simplified Chinese character, possibly of Chinese manufacture but in the North Korean stockpile. Ultra-simplified Chinese writing, known as “second-round simplification,” was in official use between 1977 and 1986.

At the same time, the private Chinese plant or other firms could just as well produce weapons for the Russian forces, Su Ziyun said.

“From this perspective, the Chinese Communist Party [would] want to profit from both sides, with state-owned enterprises selling to Russia while private enterprises go for the Ukrainian market. This possibility cannot be ruled out,” he said. “Everything regarding Communist China is opaque, so all we can do is make informed guesses.”

Research from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published in January 2020 shows that Communist China overtook Russia to become the world’s second-largest arms producer, second only to the United States.

Against the trend

Lin Hui expressed surprise that while other businesses in China were struggling, the military industry seemed to be on the upswing.

The Chinese military industry is expanding its scale. Lin Hui told Dajiyuan that they are not directly involved in these military projects, but they know that such enterprises are very profitable, focusing solely on military orders while orders from other industries are scarce. Despite this, their business is thriving, and employee benefits are high.

“You can tell whether a company has money as soon as you walk in. The environment is clean and tidy, everything is well-organized, they are willing to spend money, and you can see the condition of the employees. Though whether the profits are good or not, it’s easy to tell at a glance,” he said.

Lin mentioned continuous construction of new factories in the military industry. For example, the factory producing weapons had new factories under construction when he visited, and the one producing air-to-air missiles was planning to build a high-quality intelligent office building, costing hundreds of millions.

He said, “We’ve been in contact with some private enterprises and traditional industries, and their project funds have been compressed very low. But in the military industry, the prices they offer are very high, and the profits are also very high. Everyone likes to do business with them, which reflects their ample budget.”

He noted that after the pandemic, many companies were left without orders. They visited the automobile industry, where previously cars were produced on the assembly line 24 hours a day. However, after the pandemic, instead of two production lines, there was only one, and it was not operational 24 hours a day, resulting in decreased production capacity, a significant difference from before.