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.

China Daily (Canada) - - XINJIANG -

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.

Con­tact the writ­ers at edzhang@chi­ and cui­jia@chi­

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