Corps Values Endure on the Mainland's Wild West Frontier

Mark O'Neill | South China Morning Post

November 8, 2004-- Fifty years ago, Mao Zedong ordered 175,000 soldiers to settle in the far western region of Xinjiang to secure the area for China against warlords, Kuomintang troops, Soviet and American agents, and those fighting for independence and an Islamic republic.

Half a century later, China enjoys good relations with its neighbours, the Taleban government has gone, and the military threat is negligible. But the body Mao created - the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) - has grown into one of the biggest institutions in China, with 2.54 million members, 1,500 companies and responsibility for 2,000km of the region's border.

It is the only one of the 12 production and construction corps - all part of the People's Liberation Army - which China set up in the 1960s and 70s that still survives. Beijing abolished the others bet- ween 1972 and 1976.

Why should the corps still exist when China's control over the region is more secure than it has ever been? None of its neighbours support the recreation of a separate government - the Republic of East Turkestan - that existed briefly before it was crushed by the communist army when it entered the region in 1949.

All co-operate with Beijing in opposing such a state and hand back "terrorists" suspected of carrying out attacks.

According to official figures, between 1990 and 2003, "terrorists" killed 160 civil servants and religious figures in Xinjiang, while the security forces killed 110 "terrorists" and dismantled 560 of their organisations.

"Compared to the early and mid-1990s, the threat of separatism has diminished," Wang Lequan, Communist Party chief of Xinjiang and political chief of the XPCC since December 1995, said last month. "In recent years, friendly neighbouring countries like Pakistan, Nepal and Russia have handed back many of these terrorists."

The exile movement of the Uygurs - the largest minority in Xinjiang with about 40 per cent of the population of 18 million - is weak and divided and lacks a leader with the charisma and global status of the Dalai Lama.

Unlike the Tibetan leader, leaders of Uygur movements do not meet heads of state and are not invited to prime-time television shows. Beijing wages an unrelenting diplomatic and political war against them.

In September, on the steps of the US Capitol building in Washington, a group of Uygur exiles announced the formation of a government-in-exile. The event was attended by just two media - the Far Eastern Economic Review and an official Chinese newspaper that will print nothing about it. Other Uygur exiled groups distanced themselves from the event.

Despite this greatly reduced political and security threat, Zhang Qingli, the commander of the XPCC since October 1999, insisted that the corps was essential.

"The XPCC will live for a long time," he says. "As long as we have enemies in the world who want us dead, as long as Xinjiang has separatists and religious extremists causing trouble, the corps will live forever. It has two roles, to open up wasteland and protect the frontiers, both an aspect of national security. In peacetime the farming role becomes more important, and in times of tension the security role is more important. The two roles are inseparable."

The corps is the biggest state organisation on the mainland, after the People's Liberation Army. It has a unique status, with its own courts and legal system, and is subject to the authority of the PLA - not the regional government.

In times of peace, the problems Mr Zhang has to deal with are less about border protection and catching bombers than the headaches of a city mayor or chief executive of a giant company. Like the state units of the Maoist era, it runs nurseries, schools, hospitals, old people's homes and many welfare services.

Of the corps members, 450,000 are retired and 900,000 work, which means that only two active ones support one retired. But Mr Zhang has no powers to collect taxes or raise the corps' revenue.

Many second- and third-generation members, especially the educated, are leaving, preferring life in the more familiar Han cities of the east to Xinjiang's harsh climate and geography and the risk of attack by their neighbours. This has forced the farms and factories of the corps to hire migrant labour.

"Inspired by Mao, my parents volunteered to go to Xinjiang in the 1960s," said Wang Ying, an office worker in Shanghai. "That was the spirit of the time. It was voluntary, not compulsory. But, when they got there, they regretted it. They could not adapt to life. They could not leave but sent me and my brother to be raised by relatives in the east. Now they are retired, they are allowed to return.

"For many Han people, it is the same. Life there is too different and you live apart from the Uygurs. Now young people are not subject to the same rules as their parents and can leave if they can find a job elsewhere."

So Mr Zhang has the job of trying to bring the XPCC into the rest of a country that has forgotten many of its ideals and rhetoric.

"We are the last aircraft carrier of the planned economy. If we do not change, we will become an isolated island in the ocean of the market economy," he said.

"When I came here, I found people accustomed to decades of state planning. A few people used their brains and the rest followed them. Managers ordered people to till the ground and neither understood the other. It has taken enormous effort to change this mentality."

In 2001, Mr Zhang allowed members to sign long-term individual leases on land and gave them more freedom to set up their own businesses. The Corps has 18 industrial conglomerates, with 11 companies listed on the stock exchange. It accounts for one seventh of Xinjiang's output, down from one third in the 1970s.

It remains a producer of grain, cotton, tomato, grape and fruits. It farms 1.1 million hectares of land and accounts for more than half of China's cotton exports. Just over 31 per cent of its members now live in cities, up from 21 per cent in 1978.

This January, the State Council approved the establishment of three new cities to be managed by the corps, in addition to one it set up in the 1960s. In April and May this year, Mr Zhang paid an official visit to Cuba, Mexico, Canada and Thailand, the first foreign tour by an XPCC commander, looking for business opportunities.

But the corps cannot turn into Petrochina or Legend computers.

"The basic condition of a market economy is that government and business are separate," said Chen Ping, head of the corps' history bureau. "But we cannot do this. Strategically, we are a political organisation. If we were simply an economic organisation, we could not patrol the border."