The local hero who built Xinjiang
The transformation of People’s Liberation army units into an economic force was driven by one of China’s best-known soldiers, as Ed Zhang, Cui Jia andMaoWeihua report fromShihezi in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.
One man’s story is of overarching importance in the history of modernXinjiang; that of Wang Zhen (1908-93), who led the People’s Liberation Army forces that took the region from the Kuomintang government, not by force, but by negotiating a peaceful liberation deal in 1949.
In the 1950s, Wang was equally active, supervising the conversion of many of those combat units into the earliest divisions of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a quasi-military force that exercises administrative control over several cities as well as farms and industrial facilities.
Officially, Wang was stationed in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region for just four years, from 1949 to 1953. But later, he traveled back and forth and made many trips to China’s westernmost corner, mainly to plan the development of the XPCC, or “Bingtuan” as the corps is known locally.
Wang remains a household name as a Bingtuan hero — a legendary character in modern China’s efforts to defend and build Xinjiang.
To gauge the depth of public affection for Wang, visitors only have to pay a visit to the Bingtuan museum in Shihezi, a new industrial center in the north of the region served by airlines and express rail services, and the largest city built by the corps so far.
The museum is housed in the building that was used by the officials who oversaw all the land reclamation projects around Shihezi in the 1950s and ’60s. The areas are now subdivisions of the Bingtuan’s 8th Division.
Astatue ofWang stands outside the front gate of the museum, and at weekends it serves as a meeting point and center of activities for a sizeable proportion of the city’s population of more than 500,000.
People arrive, one group after another, to pose for photos with the statue. They include wedding parties, family tours, reunions of retirees and old classmates, school tours, and of course, museum visitors.
Congregating near the statue has become a ritual in Shihezi, as is obvious to even the most casual observer, and the locals derive a sense of worth and pride by remembering theman wholabored alongside the city’s first generation of builders.
Cui Ling, director of commerce and investor relations for the Bingtuan’s 12th Division, is proud of her family history: “I’m a second-generation Xinjiang native. My father was a PLA soldier who followed General Wang Zhen to Xinjiang when he was stationed in Kashi (the local name for Kashgar in the south of the region).”
In 1949, most PLA soldiers were expected to march to Xinjiang, so Wang arranged a fleet of trucks to transport many of them. For the others, though, the conditions were so poor and the tasks ahead so urgent that some soldiers rode camels and cut through the 400-kilometer-wide Taklamakan Desert.
Nowadays, things are easier for members of the 12th Division and physical strength is no longer an essential asset. Being headquartered on the outskirts of Urumqi, the regional capital, has given the division an economic advantage. During the development of the local business sector “we were prepared from the outset to embrace the inevitable overflow of the city’s commercial functions,” Cui said.
Cui, a trained livestock specialist, andher colleagues have accomplished the successful transformation of a Bingtuan unit grounded in agriculture into one founded on industry and services.
Cui explained that the strategy was designed to help the city “relocate its old and increasingly crowded market outlets to vacant, peripheral land” under the division’s control.
Spacious — enormous by the standards of other Chinese cities — markets have been built to house suppliers of cars and trucks, farm products, and construction materials and machinery.
The 12th Division’s 150,000 members provide the work force for its seven companies, seven large plantations, which cover a combined 20,000 hectares, and seven ranges of about 200,000 hectares of grassland.
Farming and animal husbandry are no longer the main source of the 12th Division’s revenues. In 2014, more than half of the 13 billion yuan ($2 billion) generated was provided by the service sector, which earned 7.3 billion yuan. Industrial activity accounted for 4.8 billion yuan, and just 0.9 billion yuan came from agriculture and animal husbandry.
“We also have an industrial park, which has attracted investment from technology companies, and our own companies are listed on the national stock exchanges,” Cui said.
Her career path reflects the many changes the division has weathered. “The first mission the Bingtuan assigned me was to raise sheep. The second was to slaughter them and produce more meat at a time when China was in the early stages of a market economy. My current mission is, as it were, to sell sheep, or every value-added product that can be generated by local resources,” she said.
“I can retire satisfied now that the previous two missions have been completed, and the third has started successfully and can be passed on to my younger colleagues.”
Although the Bingtuan is upgrading itself via industrialization and urbanization, thanks to its large tracts of flat farmland and the use of advanced machinery and technology, agriculture is still a major part of the organization’s activities.
At 960 sq km, the Fangcaohu Plantation, run by the 6th Division, is huge. It accounts for one-10,000th of China’s entire landmass, and the area under cultivation is 40,000 hectares, with more than 60 percent devoted to cotton.
Xinjiang produces half of China’s cotton, and one-third of the cotton planted in the region is grown by the Bingtuan. Fangcaohu, which claims to be one of the largest Stateowned farms in the country, is the unit’s biggest cotton producer.
“If we can obtain more water for irrigation, we can grow more cotton. Water is the most important thing for everything in arid Xinjiang,” said Shi Zhongyan, political instructor of the 5th Company’s Sub-Farm No 6.
According to the 48-yearold second-generation Bingtuan man, modern agricultural technology allows a larger number of plantations to be irrigated, but with lower water use. “The farm workers can control the supply of water and fertilizers via computers. They can take care of their farmland without physically being here,” he said.
In addition to knowing how to run a farm, as an official in an organization that has its origins in the army and maintains a militarystyle name and structure, Shi also undertakes routine militia training.
When the order to assemble arrives, he has just 30 minutes to report for duty. “Our tasks mostly involve assisting police officers and armed police units during emergencies, such as natural disasters and terrorist attacks,” he said.
Anincreasing number of terrorist attackshavehappenedin Xinjiang in recent years as religious extremism has penetrated deep into the region, which is home for more than half of China’sMuslim population.
During a visit toXinjiang in April last year, President Xi Jinping said the Bingtuan’s role in Xinjiang should be reinforced, not weakened, and he urged the organization to become a force for stability and to set a good example for the integration of Xinjiang’s numerous ethnic groups.
Wu Gang, 51, oversees five emergency militia units at the Fangcaohu Plantation. The 1,920 members of the units all work on the plantation, which has a population of more than 30,000. “Besides routine training, they are required to take part in 15 to 30 days’ intensive training, including weapons’ training, every year,” he said.
In July 2008, more than 800 Bingtuan members from Fangcaohu were dispatched to Urumqi, three hours away by road, to help maintain social stability in the wake of a riot that claimed the lives of 197 people.
“We are always ready and well prepared. Bingtuan people will never forget their role as soldiers when Xinjiang needs us,” Wu said.
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