The Conqueror of China’s Wild West

How the west was won on China’s
Islamic frontier

urumqi

 Urumqi, Xinjiang, China

On April 11, dozens of top Chinese military officers, government and
party officials gathered in the frontier city of Urumqi
to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Wang Zhen,
the man who conquered China’s
vast western region for the Communists and in doing so created a unique
institution.  

In 1954, when the country was barely under Communist control and the
non-Chinese residents of its restive frontier were presented with a historic,
if slim, chance for independence, Chairman Mao Zedong sent Wang Zhen to found
the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp, known in Chinese as Bing Tuan or
Army Group, an organization of military settlers with a mission to keep
Xinjiang within China.

Despite occasional unrest among the Uighurs, Bing Tuan succeeded well
beyond the ambitions of its founder, who died 15 years ago at the age of 85.  From an initial 175,000 soldiers, it has
grown to 2.5 million members and controls 74,000 square kilometers in which are
five major cities. It operates like an independent kingdom, with its own
schools, universities, hospitals, courts, police, newspapers and television
stations.

Not subject to the Xinjiang government, the Bing Tuan reports directly
to Beijing and retains a central role in Beijing’s strategy for the region,
producing steel and tomatoes by day and ready to patrol the borders by night.
It even sends its own teams to national sports events, while producing 40
percent of Xinjiang’s cotton, a third of its oilseeds and nearly of half its
sugar beets. It has become one of the world’s biggest producers of tomato
paste, with more than 4 billion yuan in sales last year, mostly for export. It
operates 1,500 companies, of which 11 are listed on various stock markets. Over
the last 50 years, it has been crucial to China’s colonization of a region
that accounts for one sixth of the national territory, with more than 22
percent of national reserves of oil and gas and substantial reserves of 31 developable
minerals. Its members guard the pipelines that transport the oil and gas to the
rest of China.

“Comrade Wang Zhen gave us a mission – hold a weapon in one hand to
defend the borders of the motherland and a tool in the other to develop
production.” Bing Tuan commander-in-chief Hua Shifei told the anniversary
celebration.  

At the defeat of the Kuomintang government in distant Nanjing in 1949, the Han Chinese accounted
for fewer than 3 percent of Xinjiang’s population, a figure that has risen to
40 percent currently. The First Field Army was sent to the region to prevent any
secession, and it  fulfilled the mission
with cold-blooded efficiency.

After the main fighting was over, the question was how Beijing could secure control of the enormous
region. Han Chinese did not want to migrate to an area with a harsh desert
climate, low rainfall, no infrastructure and hostile neighbours. Mao and Wang
decided to use the soldiers in place to set up construction corps, as in
Heilongjiang and Inner Mongolia, They would settle in a sparsely populated
area, cultivate the soil and protect the border.

Included in the Bing Tuan, in addition to People’s Liberation Army
soldiers, were Kuomintang and East
Turkestan Republic
soldiers who had surrendered. The central government would later send tens of
thousands of young people, especially women, from all over China to join
the Bing Tuan and create future generations.

Like the pioneers of Israel,
the soldier-settlers built irrigation canals and walls of trees to protect
their settlements from the desert and the enemy, and grew crops in giant
collective farms. They built roads, telephone lines and factories and created
new cities, like Kuitun in 1975 and Shiheze in 1976.

In 1962, just after the Sino-Soviet split, 60,000 ethnic minorities fled
to the Soviet Union and Beijing
feared a war. Bing Tuan members took over the farms of those who had fled and
set up 58 new ones along a 2,000-km stretch of the border.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the emergence of central
Asian republics based on a dominant nationality, Beijing again feared an independent Uighuristan.
But it has established good relations with the five neighboring republics. None
supports such an independent state nor allows Uighurs in its borders to
organize politically or militarily, while exiles, divided among themselves and infiltrated
by Chinese agents, have no one of the global stature of the Dalai Lama to keep
their flame alive.

In this context, the Bing Tuan has become an economic and social powerhouse,
with the PLA fulfilling the military role and its members operating as reserve
and militia. Han Chinese account for nearly 90 percent of its members but the
Bing Tuan cannot, unlike in Wang Zhen’s day, compel its members to remain in
Xinjiang against their wishes and must attract them with the promise of a
better life, education and career prospects.

Nie Weiguo, the organization’s political commissar, said on March 24
that, by 2010, the corps would have a gross domestic product of 65 billion
yuan, exports and imports totaling US$7.1 billion and an average individual
income of 7,500 yuan – against an average of 4,000 yuan for all rural Chinese
in 2007.  Its cities, factories and farms
have created opportunities for new settlers from central and eastern China, helping
Han Chinese to spread their dominance to the hinterland.

But, like the heavily armed settler communities in Israel and the West Bank,
the Bing Tuan cannot become an entirely economic entity as long as the threat
of civil war remains.

“The Bing Tuan adheres to the principle of attaching equal importance to
production and militia duties,” says a government white paper on the corps. “It
has set up in frontier areas a ‘four in one’ system of joint defense that links
the PLA, the armed police, the Bing Tuan and ordinary people, playing an
irreplaceable special role in the past five decades in smashing and resisting
internal and external separatists’ attempts at sabotage and infiltration and in
maintaining the stability and safety of the borders of the motherland.”

 

 

 

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