Different Stages of Progress: Munitions Policy as an Indicator of Development

Every nation is concerned with development, that phenomenon measuring the progress of a state. Whilst it is clear that global states are at separate stages of development, we often express this notion through studying their comparative political and economic systems. Yet examining a state’s policy towards the production, storage and use of munitions also points to differing stages of progress.

Chemical Weapons

The first widespread use of chemical weapons came during World War One. Poison gas had been used experimentally during 19th century warfare and this had led to the Hague Convention of 1907 which forbade its use.

This did not stop the German use of mustard gas, phosgene and other blistering agents which had such a devastating affect on the troops of the Entente powers during the early stages of WWI, herded as they were into almost inescapable trenches. The British and French eventually retaliated with their own chemical attacks on the Germans and by the end of the war it was no secret what horrific injuries this ‘new’ form of warfare could provoke.

Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI
Mustard gas blown across the Western Front during WWI

The experiences of the nations involved with chemical weapons during the trench warfare of WWI prevented them from repeating their use during WWII. Even Hitler, unconcerned with gassing Jews and other ‘undesirables’ in his concentration camps, held back from using chemical weapons. After all, he had served on the front line during WWI and knew the potential ramifications of an Allied retaliation should the Wehrmacht engage in chemical warfare.

Japanese forces, meanwhile, were prolific in their use of chemical weapons against the Chinese both in the lead-up to and during WWII. Having not yet experienced first hand the affects of chemical warfare, there were less reservations amongst the Imperial Army command about its use.

The Japanese, whilst a rapidly modernising nation, had yet to reach the economic and political development experienced by the Western European powers and the USA, and their later use of chemical weapons partly reflects this.

Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces
Three of a reputed 700,000 chemical munitions left in China by Japanese forces

Similarly, post-WWII examples of chemical warfare employed by Iraq during the Gulf War, and recently by the Syrian Army, are partly a result of these nations stunted development in comparison to the Western world. These are states which were introduced relatively late to modern warfare because of their lack of economic power and technological expertise, with citizens’ only previous experience having come in the armies of colonial powers.

Their employment of such munitions, whilst unforgivable, is understandable given historical precedent.

Locations of Munitions Factories and Depots

One of the most notorious disasters in the history of London occurred on the 19th January 1917 when the TNT factory at Silvertown exploded, killing 73 people and injuring over 400. Most notable was the high percentage of civilian deaths, for the explosives factory was in the heartland of East London, surrounded by terraced housing in one of the country’s most densely populated areas.

Devastation at Silvertown
Devastation at Silvertown

Similar tragedies occurred at Low Moor, Bradford in August 1916 (38 dead) and Ashton-under-Lyne in June 1917 (43 dead). The high death tolls were a direct result of the government policy of converting city centre factories for the production of explosives and munitions.

By WWII, such policies were already outdated and the British government made a point of building ordnance factories at purpose-built sites away from civilian habitation. Disasters still occurred, of course, but casualties were largely restricted to factory employees.

Compare this policy change to the munitions disasters that have occurred in African cities since the turn of the century. In January 2002, high explosives were accidentally detonated at an armament depot in Lagos, Nigeria. The huge blast and subsequent fires killed some 1,100 people.

In March 2007, 93 people were killed when an explosion at an arms depot in central Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, destroyed surrounding houses.

More recently, in March 2012, a series of blasts at arms dumps in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, killed at least 200 and sent debris across the Congo River into Kinshasa.


Indigenous experience counts. No matter what has happened elsewhere in the world, government policy and social norms rarely change without an event occurring specifically within that country.

That we can still be having munitions factories in the centre of capital cities, nearly a century after Silvertown, seems astonishing, yet it is a further indicator of delayed development.

It is for this reason that so-called developed nations should avoid moralising and dictating terms to the developing world. As with political and economic development, the path to progress is a slow and turbulent one. Sometimes it requires tragedy for that progress to be made.


Xi’s Self-Criticism Plea Raises Spectre of Mao

Xi Jinping, China’s President, has been on a mission to improve the integrity and performance of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials across the country by encouraging ‘criticism’ and ‘self-criticism’ sessions amongst high-ranking Party cadres.

Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP
Xi wants the self-criticisms to help eradicate formality, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance from the CCP

Plagued by top-level corruption scandals, and with a youth population increasingly intolerant of its politicians’ corruption and excess, the CCP is, in Xi’s eyes, in need of rebuke and reform.

Commentators who heralded Xi’s succession to the Chinese presidency may well find themselves disappointed at this development so early in his rule, for the notion of ‘self-criticism’ is inextricably linked with the reign of Mao Tse-Tung and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao had encouraged criticisms as early as 1942, before the CCP had come to power. He initially used them as a means to keep his colleagues humble and cowed, to prevent them become imbued with an arrogance that came with increasing power, a power that could rival his own. Simultaneously, Mao viewed the criticisms of the CCP as a way to draw out Party ‘enemies’ who unwittingly fell into his trap, particularly if they criticised one of the Chairman’s own policies. Punishments invariably involved torture, imprisonment, detention in work camps and execution.

After the CCP won power in 1949, Mao introduced the concept of “self-criticisms” whereby Party officials were ordered to expel their own failings in front of groups of their peers, the latter adding their own criticisms to the proceedings. This not only gave the impression that all except Mao were flawed, thus preserving his superiority, but it gave the peasantry and the lower classes an outlet for their frustration and anger during the years of the Great Leap Forward, when starvation and poverty proliferated. Mao avoided criticism himself by organising collective criticisms of those officials he wanted to be deemed culpable for his own mistakes.

By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority
By illuminating the perceived weaknesses of his Party cadres through self-criticisms, Mao retained his superiority

During the Cultural Revolution, self-criticism sessions were a daily event and designated ‘bourgeois’ and ‘capitalist-roader’ officials (basically anyone providing a real or imagined challenge to Mao and his deluded policies) were subjected to a barrage of vitriolic abuse which was often combined with horrific physical torture at the hands of the militant Red Guards who Mao had indoctrinated. Even senior leaders such as Zhou Enlai would be forced into self-criticisms.

Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members
Forced self-criticisms broke the will of many loyal Party members

Why Xi has chosen this particular phraseology – undoubtedly aware as he must be of its connotations – is debatable. One potential reason is that the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is upon us (1st October) and he is keen to show that the CCP has retained its revolutionary commitment.

A second possible reason is the fallout of the Bo Xilai scandal. Bo was a hardline leftist with a Maoist philosophy and is thought to have gained many supporters within the Chinese political establishment. This ‘shift to the left’ by Xi may be an attempt to appease those potential troublemakers angered by Bo’s imprisonment.

It may just be that Xi thinks it necessary to return to the culture of fear created during Mao’s reign to finally put an end to the ongoing corruption crisis within the CCP.

Whatever the reasoning, Xi’s self-criticism sessions have been mocked and denigrated by Chinese internet users canny enough to bypass the state-imposed firewall. Whether this will deter the President from pursuing this reinvented policy remains to be seen. Yet for those believing his ascent to power may have ushered in a period of liberal reform in China, they may have to make a reassessment.