The recent violent suppression of protests against the ruling regime in Venezuela, captured on camera by international media outlets, sparked public outrage.
The military armor vehicle that ran over protestors was manufactured by a Chinese state-run defense company, highlighting China’s role in supporting the current dictatorship.
In the morning hours on April 30, unarmed protestors backing Juan Guaidó, the legitimate leader and head of Venezuela’s National Assembly who declared himself acting president in January, took to the streets of Caracas.
They assembled after Guaidó called on supporters to gather on the streets to begin the “final phase” of his plan to oust Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro.
The peaceful protest turned ugly outside a military base in Caracas, when a Venezuelan National Guard vehicle ran over protestors, according to accounts and footage filmed by Reuters. Other protestors could be seen rushing to the aid of those who were hit by the vehicle. It isn’t known how many were injured or if there were any fatalities.
Venezolana de Televisión, Venezuela’s state-run broadcaster, briefly mentioned the morning hour protest in a report published May 1. While calling Guaidó a “coup deputy,” the article mentioned that eight VN-4 vehicles were present at the protest site. These vehicles later withdrew and returned to their military units, according to the report.
Several Spanish-language media also identified the vehicle that plowed into protestors as a VN-4 vehicle, including Argentinian news website Infobae, Barcelona-based newspaper La Vanguardia, and Mexico-based media Cultura Colectiva. They pointed out that VN-4 vehicles are nicknamed the “Rhinoceros.”
Indeed, the VN-4 are from China. They are light, tactical-armored vehicles manufactured by China North Industries Group Corporation (Norinco), which is owned by China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, an agency under the cabinet-like State Council.
Chinese media reports indicate that the VN-4 was ready for export since at least 2009. It was first unveiled to the public at a police equipment exhibition in Beijing that year. It has since been exported to Venezuela, Kenya, Sudan, Cambodia, among others.
Venezuela’s use of these vehicles has not been for normal peacekeeping purposes. In testimony before a U.S. congressional hearing in September 2017, Evan Ellis, senior associate at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, stated that “the VN-4 armored cars and VN-16 light tanks sold by the P.R.C. [People’s Republic of China] to Venezuela, and designed for riot control, have arguably contributed to efforts by Venezuela’s current regime to suppress democratic protests.”
Venezuela has built up its stock of VN-4 over the years, some being donations from China.
According to an October 2018 report on China’s engagement with Latin America and the Caribbean by the U.S.-China Economic Security Review Commission, Venezuela ordered 121 VN-4 vehicles from China in 2012, which were delivered between 2013 and 2015. Chinese state-run media reported in 2013 about its first delivery of the VN-4s to Venezuela.
Then, in November 2015, Venezuela’s state-run newspaper Correo del Orinoco, reported comments made by Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López, about the arrival of 560 VN-4 vehicles that were donated by Beijing.
In June 2017, Spanish-language daily El Nuevo Herald, which is published in Florida, reported that more than 150 vehicles, including VN-4s, were delivered from Norinco to Venezuela.
Given the timing, it is likely the armored vehicles deployed to suppress past protests were also VN-4s.
El Nuevo Herald reported comments by Henrique Capriles, pro-democracy leader and then-governor of Miranda State, who expressed outrage at both the Venezuelan government and Beijing for the purchases, saying the vehicles would be used to suppress people.
“It is unacceptable that in the most serious food and medicine crisis in history, China sells equipment to suppress the people with hunger,” Capriles said.
Norinco was founded in 1980 with approval from the State Council and China’s Central Military Commission—the highest military governing body within the Chinese Communist Party.
On its website, the company description explains that, for the past 40 years, the company has consistently “listened to the party, and followed the party.” It boasts that “party-building” within the company has powered its development to become a global competitor.
The company has explicitly stated its support for China’s foreign policy project, One Belt, One Road (OBOR, also known as Belt and Road), an initiative launched in 2013 to build up geopolitical influence via investments across Southeast Asia, African, Europe, and Latin America.
Norinco also is known to have armed unethical governments and criminal organizations, while being accused of human rights abuses.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released the results of an investigation into whether the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons in an attack on three towns in northern Syria in April 2014.
HRW found strong evidence to the affirmative, noting that there were canisters with the markings “Cl2,” which is the chemical symbol for chlorine gas, and “NORINCO,” which “indicates that the cylinders were manufactured in China by the state-owned company NORINCO,” the report said.
In August 2015, a U.N. report called out Norinco for selling the South Sudan government 100 anti-tank guided missile launchers, 1,200 missiles, about 2,400 grenade launchers, nearly 10,000 automatic rifles, and 24 million rounds of various types of ammunition, according to the Associated Press.
The South Sudan government was condemned for war crimes committed during the civil war of 2013 that pitted forces loyal to South Sudanese President Salva Kiir against those who rebelled under former deputy Riek Machar. According to Reuters, South Sudanese soldiers have been accused of raping children, burning people alive, and razing villages.
Norinco also manufactures guns and rifles, one of them being the Type 56 rifle, a variant of the Soviet-designed AK-47.
Amnesty International, in a 2009 report, stated that “Chinese-made Norinco guns are frequently used by criminal gangs in Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Africa.”
In February, U.S. magazine The National Interest identified several models of Norinco guns that are being widely used in the Middle East by the ISIS terrorist group and the Syrian regime. The Type 56 rifles are “common on international arms markets and often bought up by nations looking to arm groups with some level of deniability,” the report added.
Norinco is also in the mining business through its subsidiary Wanbao Mining. Zimbabwe politicians have arranged lucrative mining contracts to Chinese companies, including Norinco, in exchange for arms. Wanbao holds several mineral rights in the African country, according to a 2013 article by Zimbabwean radio station Nehanda Radio.
Also, in February 2017, Amnesty International called on Burmese authorities to shut down a copper mine operated by Wanbao due to human rights abuses, including forced evictions of locals living near the mine.