The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, established almost 65 years ago to protect and develop the remote northwestern region of China, is now playing an increasing role in the central government’s efforts to fight “religious extremism.”
Most Han people have been settled in Xinjiang by the state decree after the region was taken over by Communist China in 1949. The proportion of Han residents has risen from 4 to over 40 percent since then, getting close in numbers to the population of Muslim Uyghurs. The reason for this can mostly be attributed to the establishment of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in 1954.
The XPCC, often called “Bingtuan,” is an economic, social, and paramilitary organization, founded under the orders of Chairman Mao, to protect and develop this remote border region. Initially comprised of 175,000 decommissioned soldiers, XPCC now has over 2.5 million members who work in industry and agriculture, as well as administration and civil service. About 86 percent are Han Chinese, and the majority of new members are from outside Xinjiang.
Headquartered in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the XPCC has 14 divisions that each corresponds to a prefecture-level administrative division of Xinjiang, and around 180 regiments that are divided into companies. More than half of XPCC members work in regiment-level farms and ranches, scattered throughout Xinjiang’s sparsely inhabited areas.
About 100,000 of employees are also part of XPCC’s militia, for whom military training activities is an essential task alongside their daily work and life. In the wake of the central government’s policies to “maintain stability,” the security role of XPCC has been regaining importance after many years of decline.
A Bitter Winter reporter recently visited one of the XPCC’s regiments to find out how these policies that have resulted in over a million of Muslims detained in camps, as well as the ongoing destruction of their cultural and religious identity, are affecting the Han Chinese living in remote Xinjiang.
An elderly worker, who is also a member of the militia, told our reporter that, throughout 2018, each regimental farm had been in the mode of “preparing for war to maintain stability.” In March alone, his regiment recruited 600 new members.
“Authorities frequently hold meetings for the new recruits, who all had been ordered to sign an agreement to join the militia. Besides their regular work, the militiamen are obliged to take part in mandatory military drills,” said the elderly worker. “This May, at an emergency meeting, all members of the regiment – old and new – had to sign the so-called ‘allegiance agreement.’ The gist of it is that they pledge an oath of allegiance to the Communist Party, in support of its policies, and guarantee not to hold religious beliefs. Everyone is also required to wear a special uniform.”
According to the interviewed man, the military drills are often held in uninhabited fields: as soon as the siren sounds, all men under the age of 45 depart in military vehicles and do not return until two or three in the morning. Meanwhile, the women patrol the area on foot until 1 a.m. The militiamen were also told to get a wooden stick for daily “stick kung fu” exercises.
Every person in the militia must have a phone, to be used exclusively for militia-related matters; when the phone rings, militiamen must arrive at the designated meeting place within ten minutes, no matter where they are. Those who do not come on time receive various forms of punishment – from a warning to time in indoctrination “study classes.”
The supervision and punishment measures are also astounding. Another interviewed militiaman told our reporter that no one is excused from participating in drills and training unless a doctor’s note about health problems is provided. “Everyone must always be on standby and is often inspected by the superiors. During an inspection of guard posts, two militiamen were not at their posts during meal-time, and this was determined a serious dereliction of duty. As a result, their superior had to write a ‘self-criticism letter,’ was dismissed from his position, and was later sent to a ‘study class.’”
In another incident recounted by the militiaman, a cadre in the regiment was locked up in an iron cage because he was not wearing a special badge while on duty. “Anyone who even makes a slight complaint might be sent to ‘study,’ and many people had been taken there for all kinds of ridiculous reasons,” added the man.
One more interviewed person, also a member of the militia, told the reporter that the military drills make people extremely anxious. “The people who work have no normal life at all; it is completely messed up. We do this [the drills] every day now, instead of working. I haven’t slept in several days. I just close my eyes for a while, but I don’t dare actually to sleep. I want to quit, but the government won’t accept my resignation. If you misstep, you can be sent to indoctrination ‘classes’ or even your family can be implicated. Who would dare not to cooperate?” asked the militiaman.
His words reflect the sentiment of many employees at the regimental farms, and also confirm the Xinjiang authorities’ principle: “Stability maintenance comes first, even if it means sacrificing economic development.”
A person in charge of a company within the regiment confirmed that militia-related activities had intensified recently: meetings or drills are now held every day, and militiamen sometimes do not get any sleep for several days in a row. When his wife was seven or eight months’ pregnant, he applied to the regiment headquarters for home leave to visit his family but was not granted permission to leave. He decided to quit the regiment for good, but when he handed in his resignation, his superior not only did not approve it but lectured him, saying: “At this critical juncture, resigning your position would be like a soldier deserting his post. If you want to take time off, then you can go to a ‘study class.’” The interviewed man added with an expression of total helplessness, “If this continues, my family is going to fall apart.”
It appears that not all Han Chinese buy into the government’s policy of “maintaining stability.” One of the interviewed complained: “Now, farmers do not till the land, merchants do not run businesses, and families do not hold reunions. There is no normal life or rest. Everyone’s spirits are in a state of high tension, on the verge of collapse. And why? I haven’t seen any insurgents that we are supposed to fight.”
Another one added: “The government doesn’t let people have faith, they control ethnic minorities, and keep tight control over the Han people as well. In reality, they are inflaming tensions between Uyghurs and Hans. If this continues, it will eventually result in chaos.”
Reported by Li Zaili