Reports of civil unrest in Venezuela reveal a strange scene. From militarized police vehicles, giant cannons shoot water straight into protesters, and tear gas grenades are blasted directly into crowds. Tall, white, street-width barricades attached to these vehicles separate protesters from riot police, offering a barrier behind which police can hide and shoot. These vehicles are armed with audio and visual weaponry that affects breathing, thinking, and movement. The combined assault leaves protesters, often with only handmade shields, weak, injured, and dead.
As Venezuelans increasingly attribute their country’s situation to mismanagement under socialism, more and more people gather in protest to demand that the government meet their basic needs. Venezuelans expect their government to provide not just services such as affordable housing and subsidized food, but also prevent citizens from returning to poverty, having recently acclimated to the wealth that oil brought. Nonetheless, socialism elicits tough criticism; it cannot fail. Thus the Venezuelan government has taken extreme measures to quell protests, in part through alliances with dangerous groups, including motorbike gangs, in hopes of maintaining civil order. Not only is Venezuela redefining its socialism in the face of crisis, but states such as China that were more socialist in the past are profiting from the country’s suffering by providing anti-riot gear to the government. These sales to Venezuela undermine China’s own long-term strategic interests, because Venezuela’s protests and instability stem from the country’s own mismanagement, need for diversification, and lack of provisions. Furthermore, riot control distracts from any long-term solutions that China hopes to achieve. China’s sale of anti-riot gear only worsens the Venezuelan government’s grasp of the situation by misdirecting the government’s focus toward controlling protests instead of the provision of goods and financial stability. In order to reinforce China’s lasting goals of a “community of shared destiny,” sustainable trade relations must be established and cultivated.
This new anti-protest technology continues to come from China, which has gradually worked its way into the global arms trade in the last 30 years, becoming the 5th largest arms supplier in the world. A New York Times investigative piece last year outlined the recent multi-million dollar purchases the Venezuelan government has made for these militarized police vehicles from the Chinese company North Industries Group Corporation Limited, otherwise known as NORINCO. In addition to its other military and extractive ventures, NORINCO now supplies a market of buyers who want to suppress dissenters but have been refused access to existing anti-protest technology by Western governments. In this tangled web, China can ultimately seek profits from selling arms to governments embargoed by major powers while pursuing strategic partnerships under these deals. Unfortunately NORINCO’s short-term business with the Venezuelan National Guard comes at a high cost to China’s long-term interest in broadening its global economic relationships, which require a healthy, stable, and well-educated population.
China makes investments in infrastructure, mining, biotechnology, transportation, insurance, and oil drilling in countries all around the world. What makes its new foray into anti-protest armaments unique? The majority of China’s deals involve state-owned companies, whether it’s SINOPEC, the China Development Bank, or NORINCO, showing the country’s prioritization of forging agreements involving companies that report directly to the central government. China’s current foreign policy of win-win outcomes with those they enter partnerships with shows its commitment to seeing developments through existing governments. And, although China’s violent authoritarianism has moved past its heyday, those in power in Venezuela seem to think that they can emulate China’s stability by employing more directly repressive tools instead of providing the social services that Presidents Chavez and Maduro originally committed themselves to expanding and improving.
Under Chavez’s Bolivarian missions series of social programs, his government gained enormous popularity and support through its efforts to reduce extreme poverty, reduce the unemployment rate, increase health coverage, increase literacy, and develop the rural parts of the country. Though Venezuela’s wealth came from its reliance on crude oil, Chavez emphasized and fulfilled promises to make this resource wealth more equitable than we have seen in other resource-rich countries, investing in adult literacy programs, nutrition, and free community healthcare. Because he followed corrupt and kleptocratic leaders, his government’s ability to substantially improve citizens’ standards of living led people to realize their loyalty for him and his policies. Subsequently, poor Venezuelans began to expect that their rise out of poverty would last, a trajectory they attributed nearly entirely to socialism, Chavez, and crude.
Venezuelans now demand that their situation be fixed: Currency stabilization must be brought to the country and food sources restored. They recall that the government was once able to make the country among the richest in South America, and have now seen the government make it the poorest. Furthermore, the progress made in Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution has all but evaporated, with the government now barely able to provide even meager food distributions called “CLAP” that people wait hours in line for.
Some Venezuelans, like some Chinese people, might believe and even expect only the government to be the source of change because of the historical and monumental shifts their governments had brought in improving their quality of life. Other Venezuelans, who see the danger in Maduro’s power consolidation, are left weak, defenseless, and further aggrieved in the face of a powerful and well-equipped National Guard. Ultimately, we are witnessing a lose-lose situation both for the Chinese hoping to foster long-term investment relations and for the Venezuelan people facing more precariousness than they ever would have predicted given their recent social progress.