The heads of a rabbit and a rat, sculpted in bronze, have been at the centre of a diplomatic furor in recent weeks. The animal heads, about 250 years old, were about to be auctioned off as part of Yves Saint Laurent’s estate, a sale that was first condemned by the Chinese government, then sabotaged by a collector who made the winning bid but refused to pay, saying he had acted out of a sense of Chinese patriotism. Indeed, the sculptures symbolize a moment of humiliation in China’s history: they are part of a set of 12 taken from the emperor’s summer palace after Anglo-French forces burned and ransacked the building in 1860. Beijing has claimed the moral high ground, saying the bronzes are part of the birthright of the Chinese people and should be returned. But where are the others? Five are missing, two are owned privately, and the remaining five—despite Beijing’s high-minded indignation—are in the hands of a secretive Chinese state-owned munitions manufacturing company that has flouted U.S. laws on arms trafficking and has come under intense worldwide criticism for fuelling human rights abuses.
Founded by the Chinese army, and run by the elite in the Communist party, Poly Technologies—which has interests in real estate as well as manufacturing and mining—has arms trading offices in several unstable or despotic countries including Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan and Burma. It has faced worldwide criticism for its arms trading on several occasions, most recently for dealings with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. In April 2008, a 15,000-ton freighter loaded with Poly’s guns and ammunition was anchored in the port of Durban. Its final destination was Zimbabwe, and with many human rights experts worried that the cargo would be used against Mugabe’s opponents, South African dockworkers refused to unload the arms. The freighter left South Africa, but the fate of the weapons remains unclear. China promised that the ship had gone home. Other reports, however, say it headed to Angola, and the arms were then transported by air to Zimbabwe.
This isn’t the first time Poly has dealt with despots, says Richard Fisher, a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of China’s Military Modernization, Building for Regional and Global Reach. The company has set up shop in Khartoum, and deals weapons to the Sudanese government despite international criticism and concern that they are being used to escalate the humanitarian crisis in Darfur. Poly also has an office in Burma, and sells tanks, anti-aircraft guns, howitzers, machine guns, and other weapons to the ruling military junta. Many countries, including Canada, the United States and the European Union, have criticized China for propping up the tyrannical regime.
For the most part, though, Poly tries to keep a low profile. Most of the company’s activities are considered Chinese state secrets, says Dennis Wilder, a fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and former National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs. Poly refused an interview with Maclean’s; “the company has no interest in full disclosure of their activities,” Wilder says. “Some of its dealings are with rogue states, so they do not want a lot of scrutiny.”
An exception was a 1996 U.S. government sting—which was the largest in U.S. history. For more than a year, Poly’s agents had negotiated with U.S. security agents disguised as criminal gun smugglers. They said they could deliver silenced machine guns, recoilless rifles, Chinese knock-off Uzis, tanks, and even surface-to-air “Red Parakeet” missiles, which “could take out a 747” commercial airliner, according to subsequent court documents. When the freighter full of Chinese weapons docked in Oakland, Calif., in March of that year, 14 people, including employees of Poly and Norinco, another state-owned Chinese arms manufacturer, were arrested.
Poly’s activities are “outrageous enough to seem like it’s a plot in an Ian Fleming novel,” says James Mulvenon, director of the Center for Intelligent Research and Analysis at Defense Group Inc., a Washington-based think tank. As well as its arms trade with rogue regimes, it is involved in art collection. It owns rare books and manuscripts, contemporary and classical paintings, ceramics, jade jewellery, calligraphy, and of course, the five bronze heads, acquired through actions and gifts by a patriotic billionaire. Says Mulvenon: “The Chinese government has decided that accumulating cultural artifacts and selling weapons are both in the national interest. And it couldn’t give a rat’s ass who they trade weapons to, whatever their political or human rights agenda.”