According to Chinese state media, a 47-year-old man stormed into a law firm in China’s Wuhan city last week and shot dead a lawyer with whom he had “some disagreements.” He then stuffed his gun, which was slightly less than 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, into a tennis racket bag and walked away.
The fatal shooting shocked many people in China, which has some of the strictest gun control laws in the world – so much so that some people mistook the initial reports for another American shooting.
This widespread skepticism reflects how uncommon gun crime is in China, as opposed to being a daily occurrence in the United States. The two countries are at opposite ends of the gun control spectrum, with one having a legally protected and vehemently defended right to bear arms and the other having a near-total ban on civilian firearm ownership.
When it comes to public safety, the distinction is stark. Despite having the world’s largest population (1.4 billion people), China only has a few dozen gun crimes per year. According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, violent crime has continued to fall, reaching its lowest level in 20 years in 2020.
Meanwhile, the United States reports hundreds of mass shootings involving four or more victims each year, with over 475 such incidents recorded thus far in 2021 – not to mention many more gun deaths, such as suicides. Though there has been an increase in calls for gun control across the country, violent crime in general is on the rise; major cities saw a 33% increase in homicides last year, a trend that has continued this year.
China frequently draws this comparison, accusing America of hypocrisy and ineffective governance while downplaying its own rare incidents. For example, the police statement on the Wuhan shooting made no mention of the gun, instead stating that the attacker “wounded” an employee.
Meanwhile, state-run media outlets have published dozens of articles about shootings in the United States in the last few months alone. In 2019, the nationalist tabloid Global Times praised China’s strict gun control as “a lesson for (the) US.” In June, a Xinhua editorial called the United States a “double-dealer” for criticizing other countries on human rights grounds while failing to address its own “raging gun crimes.”
The two countries’ opposing viewpoints are especially striking given that both were born from armed insurgency, with the United States gaining independence in the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the Chinese Communist Party establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949 after a lengthy rebellion against the Nationalist government.
However, their views diverged from there, with the United States enshrining the right to bear arms in the Constitution, arguing that this right, along with a “well-regulated militia,” were “necessary to the security of a free state.”
China swung the other way, deciding that an armed public posed a threat to the country’s still-fragile, newly won stability. Weapons were a means of revolution for Communist Party leaders, with Chairman Mao Zedong famously declaring in 1927: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Only two years after the People’s Republic was established, the government enacted legislation prohibiting citizens from purchasing, selling, or privately manufacturing firearms. Several smaller ministries had passed gun control laws over the years, but the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, in which the Chinese military used lethal force to crush protests led by college students in Beijing, was a tipping point.
The National People’s Congress, China’s rubber-stamp legislature, had passed a national gun control law by 1996. Only a few groups of people are permitted to own firearms under the law, including law enforcement, security personnel, government-approved sports shooters, and government-approved hunters.
President Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party’s grip even more. Authorities have conducted more raids in recent years and offered immunity from prosecution in firearms amnesties. Last November, police destroyed 69,000 illegal guns; this May, the government announced a new four-month campaign to seize illegal guns. China’s gun control policy is broadly popular among the public, which — like many in the international community — views US gun crime with bewilderment and horror.