REPORTS EMERGING FROM Xinjiang about a deadly attack at a coal mine by suspected Uighur separatists in mid-September have got this Bystander thinking of that peculiar state organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Also known as the Bingtuan (‘military corps’), the XPCC is a paramilitary economic development agency that has widespread administrative and judicial authority in the semi-autonomous region.
Some 50 people were reportedly knifed to death in the attack on the Sogan colliery in Aksu prefecture. Most of the casualties were Han Chinese, including workers and police. If the casualty numbers and identity of the attackers turn out to be true, it would have been both the most deadly single attack by Uighur militants and the first time they had struck at an industrial site.
Politburo member Yu Zhengsheng, speaking at the 60th anniversary celebrations on October 1 of Xinjiang’s founding as an autonomous region, said that long-term stability and security is the top priority in Xinjiang, with counterterrorism as its focus.
“We must be fully aware of the severe situation we are facing,” he said probably with the attack in mind though authorities have not acknowledged that it has happened. “The three forces (separatism, terrorism, and extremism) are the biggest threats for Xinjiang… We must clench our fists tight and take the initiative to crack down on violence and terror activities.”
Aksu prefecture is one 14 areas in Xinjiang that have cities, settlements, and farms under the control of an XPCC regiment, belying its military roots. The headquarters of the regiment in Aksu is in Aral, a town of more than 200,000 people built by the XPCC on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. The prefectural capital of Aksu is Aksu City, a stop on the ancient Silk Road that is little more than a three-hour drive from Aral in the direction of the border with Kyrgyzstan.
The XPCC dates back to the 1950s. It was a Mao Zedong initiative, rooted in a centuries-old tradition of sending military units to settle and cultivate remote border regions. The aim was to combine the economic development of frontier regions with border defense and the keeping of minorities from being troublesome. Production and Construction Corps, comprised of former soldiers, were dispatched to Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang as well as Xinjiang.
The XPCC fell victim to the Cultural Revolution, being disbanded in 1975. However, Deng Xiaoping revived it in 1981 in response to fears about Soviet encirclement and rising militant Islam in Central Asia. Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority Xinjiang was seen as a vulnerable frontier.
There was forced migration from the East, particularly of women to provide wives for the soldier-farmers. The region’s remoteness and harshness also made it ideal for political banishment. Ai Qing, the poet father of artist Ai Weiwei, was exiled to a Bingtuan-run penal colony in the late 1950s. Generations of dissidents have followed him to labour-reform farms and prison factories.
To this day, the XPCC has a role with the army and armed police in combating separatism through its militia. Nonetheless, its line of authority is civilian, jointly to central and provincial government, though the Xinjiang authorities leave the Bingtuan to its own devices. The corps has a bureaucratic status equivalent to that of the provincial government.
It is a state within a state, its role a blend of American Peace Corps and West Bank settlers. The analogy with Israel is appropriate in another way. The Bingtuan has made the desert bloom. Over the years, it has built the irrigation and other rural infrastructure that lets its farms, stockbreeding, and commercial enterprises now generate upwards of an estimated $24 billion or one-sixth to one-seventh of Xinjiang’s economic output.
The Bingtuan has also built half a dozen cities. It is a far cry from the early days of hunger and hardship when teams of ex-soldiers would yoke themselves together to pull ploughs by hand to break the desert soil.
As of the end of 2013, the Bingtuan had 176 regiments, 14 divisions, an area of 70,600 square kilometers under its administration. More than a million hectares of farmland and more than 2.7 million people — overwhelmingly Han Chinese and equivalent to one in eight of Xinjiang’s total population — fall under the XPCC’s jurisdiction.
Its 1-million-strong workforce is primarily engaged in growing cotton, fruit and vegetables and in light industry, the XPCC having handed most of its mining interests over to the Xinjiang provincial authorities.
It has more than 4,400 businesses ranging from food processing to paper manufacturing, cement and electricity, with 11 of them publicly listed and trading under the umbrella of the China Xinjian Group. It also runs two universities.
Increasingly it is building cities. It controls ten, four of which have become cities since 2011. Urbanization is a central prop of the XPCC’s counter-terrorism strategy. In April last year, President Xi Jinping visited the Bingtuan and called to strengthen its role due to meet what he called the new conditions. As the Sogan colliery attack shows, the mission of the soldier-settler-farmer-colonists is far from complete.
Footnote: This history of the Bingtuan was produced by the government in 2014 to mark the 60th anniversary of the XPCC’s founding.