The Conqueror of China’s Wild West

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.”