Tea Leaf Nation

China’s Vast, Strange, and Powerful Farming Militia Turns 60

The government entity, colloquially called the 'Bingtuan,' employs almost 12 percent of everyone in Xinjiang.

Getty Images
Getty Images

China has just marked 60 years since the founding of one of its more peculiar entities. It’s a vast farming militia that cultivates cotton, tomatoes, and lavender, and dabbles in mining and textiles — when it’s not fighting terror. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), known as the Bingtuan in Chinese, was established by then-Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong in 1954 with a mandate to stabilize the volatile Xinjiang region abutting Central Asia. Another facet of the XPCC mission was self-sufficiency: the Chinese who pioneered the country’s western frontier thousands of miles from Beijing were determined not just to create outposts, but to carve farms and cities out of the vast stretches of desert characterizing the region, only formally named the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in 1955. So they tilled, and built hospitals and schools, prisons, and theaters, essentially becoming a state within a state within a military-style organizational structure. 

Its mission far from accomplished, the XPCC remains active — even expansionary — today. The newest XPCC city, a town called Shuanghe or "Two Rivers" near the border with Kazakhstan, constructed "out of nowhere" in April, to use Chinese state media’s verbal formulation. State media says the central government has plans for the XPCC to build more cities as part of an anti-terror campaign. Beijing believes more urbanization and development will help win over the region’s approximately 10 million Uighurs, a Muslim, Turkic-speaking people whose members are coming into increasing conflict with the region’s Han, who comprise the vast ethnic majority in most of China. China’s government says the XPCC’s expansion is meant to pacify disgruntled Uighurs by improving their lives, and says the billions it has poured into infrastructure in the region has improved matters for everyone. But the XPCC in many ways exemplifies why Uighurs chafe under the government’s development model. 

A ragtag force of about 175,000 people when it was founded, the original XPCC comprised either former Nationalist army forces pressed into service by the Communists, or young people from coastal areas convinced to go west as part of their revolutionary duties. Nick Holdstock, author of The Tree That Bleeds, a book about Xinjiang, told Foreign Policy via email that many of the original XPCC forces "were coerced, or misled, and had a very hard time of it." Veterans like 74-year-old Hu Youcai today give tours in Shihezi, the main XPCC base, reminiscing how in those days, he and his fellow soldiers like him slept in overcrowded mud huts on wet straw mattresses and were rationed just one uniform per year. Holdstock said that while some early arrivals made the effort to learn the Uighur language, that’s no longer the case. "Those who came later have tended not to learn Uighur and are generally more resented," he said. XPCC forces now number over 2.7 million, comprising about 11.9 percent of all of Xinjiang’s population, according to the Beijing News

In 1998, the XPCC was given a bureaucratic status equal to that of Xinjiang’s regional government. It’s also a militia, although it does not replace the People’s Liberation Army or the local police, both active in the region. A government-authored white paper on the XPCC’s history released Oct. 5 said the XPCC "played crucial roles in fighting terrorism and maintaining stability," noting that XPCC militia forces had patrolled the streets of Urumqi and guarded key installations following ethnic riots in 2009. It also runs prisons in Xinjiang.

But the XPCC has gradually evolved over the last few decades into a primarily commercial venture. The organization today is a multi-billion-dollar business with numerous publicly listed subsidiaries as well as its massive work force, most of whom are Han Chinese. Its gross domestic product last year was $24 billion, more than 17 percent of Xinjiang’s total. Though the central government often cites "not competing for benefits with the local people" as a guiding XPCC principle, many Uighurs resent the militia for appropriating what they consider to be their own land and water resources. According to the government, only 13.9 percent of the XPCC force belongs to the Uighur, Kazakh, or other minorities. Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, told FP that Uighurs "feel they are being dispossessed" by Han-led XPCC projects.

The XPCC system facilitates long term Han migration into Xinjiang, a source of Uighur anger. Bequelin said that workers from Sichuan, Qinghai, Shandong, and other provinces are recruited by the XPCC to pick cotton seasonally and some are then given the opportunity to manage their own small agricultural plot. This helps give new arrivals a foothold in the region. "A significant number (of seasonal workers) stay in Xinjiang," Bequelin said, calling the system "a springboard" into the region for Han migrants. Those migrants then earn more than locals. XPCC incomes are well above average: the per capita disposable income for an urban XPCC employee was $3,750 in 2013, compared to the regional urban average of $3,200. In the countryside, the gulf is wider: XPCC farmers made around $2,330 in 2013, while the regional rural average was $1,200. 

On top of all that, there have also been reports of graft in the XPCC ranks, including bribes and lavish banquets, though few details have been made public. XPCC’s headquarters sits in Shihezi, a city in northern Xinjiang that’s ranked among the least fiscally transparent cities in China. Nonetheless, having reached 60, the XPCC is celebrating. On Oct. 6, Vice Premier Liu Yandong and an entourage of 20 other officials from Beijing attended a gala marking six decades of XPCC pioneering with performances by leaping and singing soldiers in the regional capital of Urumqi. At a party meeting the next day in Urumqi, Liu called on the XPCC’s forces to step up their anti-terror capabilities. Chen Jiazhu, the deputy commander of the XPCC, responded that his charges were not an army, but did have the power to maintain social stability. "When we are required for missions, we must be ready," he added.

Alexa Olesen has a master’s degree in contemporary Chinese literature from SOAS University of London and was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press in Beijing for eight years. She is the director of research at China Six, a New York-based consulting firm. Twitter: @ael_o