The “Xinjiang issue” brings together a number of concerns addressed by different groups made up of various nationalities and organizations. Human rights, freedom of religion, and political and economic equality are only the most familiar to scholars of international relations and political science, human rights activists, and Uyghur organizations. All these concerns have so far neglected the political, military, and economic reality on the ground in Xinjiang. At the core of this reality stands the so-called Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) or “Bingtuan”.
The Bingtuan was founded in the fifties. Today there are 14 Bingtuan divisions operating in Xinjiang, including 13 agricultural divisions and one industrial and construction division. According to official Chinese statistics (http://www.bingtuan.gov.cn/publish/portal0/tab41), the total population of the Bingtuan is nearly three million, with the Han as the largest group. Each Bingtuan division is stationed in a strategically important area in Xinjiang and headquartered in its central city. For example, the first division controls the Aksu region and is headquartered in Aksu, while the third division is responsible for the Kashgar region and is headquartered in Kashgar city. In addition to the cities where Bingtuan divisions are headquartered, at least four cities are under the direct administration of the Bingtuan, including Tumushuke (图木舒克), Shihezi (石河子), Alaer (阿拉尔), and Wujiaqu (五家渠). A recent report published in the Chinese media indicates that the Bingtuan will build at least another 13 new cities, indicating that more cities will be under direct control of the Bingtuan.
In the 1950s, the stated purpose of building such an institution in Xinjiang was to assist the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in defeating Nationalist troops, Turkic rebels, and other forces. In the sixties and seventies, because of its proximity to Soviet Central Asia and the Islamic revolution that originated in Iran, the Bingtuan was assigned the new mission of safeguarding the northwestern frontiers. Since 1980, the Bingtuan has often been associated with maintaining stability in Xinjiang, indicating its role in suppressing Uyghur dissidents or demonstrations.
If one studies the history of China’s dynastic military colonies –– called “tuntian” (屯田) –– in Kashgaria and Dzungaria, one can easily draw parallels between the modern Bingtuan institution and these ancient tuntian institutions. The primary task of the tuntian was to colonize Kashgaria and Dzungaria. The difference lies in the nature of the tuntian system, which was temporary, symbolic, sporadic, and tactic. The modern Bingtuan institution is deeply rooted and widely involved in Xinjiang society, economy, and politics. For example, today’s Bingtuan controls several million mu of the highest-quality agricultural land in Xinjiang and draws enormous benefits from this resource. Each division possesses at least half a million mu of land, which is rented out to farmers and merchants at a price of RMB500 to RMB1,000 per mu. With the land under its control, the Bingtuan also monopolizes major water resources in the areas where its active. By distributing and providing water to local populations, each Bingtuan division generates more income to the benefit of its cadres. Even a village-level Bingtuan cadre is today believed to be millionaire.
More significantly, because each Bingtuan division controls the best land and the production of particular local products such as cotton and tomato, the Bingtuan effectively monopolizes many industries such as the cotton and tomato industries. In cooperation with rich businessmen or companies, each Bingtuan has established its own businesses and companies. For example, the 3rd division in Kashgar controls the cotton industry and the 6th division in Wujiaqu monopolizes the tomato industry. At the same time the 6th division is a major shareholder of the Zhongji Tomato Co. [中基]. In addition to strategically important resources such as land, water, and cash crops, the Bingtuan even controls infrastructure and transportation, thereby controlling the circulation of local products. Traffic is often regulated with support for Bingtuan companies and factories. Xinjiang is probably the only place on earth where major thoroughfares are labeled as and controlled by a particular organization.
To get rich in contemporary China is not shameful. But to get rich by sacrificing the interests of others is condemnable. In order to justify the continuous existence of the Bingtuan in China’s political, administrative, and economic systems, and to best exploit the local populations while staying on the right side of the law, the Bingtuan purposely politicizes its economic activities. In areas controlled by the Bingtuan, sensitive propaganda on national unity and territorial integrity have been erected on the side of Bingtuan roads to highlight the imaginary role played by the Bingtuan in maintaining stability in this ethnically diverse region. Ironically enough, such propaganda can even be found in areas inhabited exclusively by the Han. The checkpoints set up by the Bingtuan divisions along major roads, in order to monitor the transportation of agricultural products, are a greater paradox. These checkpoint politicize essentially economic behavior, casting it as a security issue and claiming such checkpoints exist to maintain stability (维稳检查).
The continuous existence of the Bingtuan, it’s trinity composition, and it’s political justification for the economic exploitation of this ethnic region forces one to question the nature of the Bingtuan and its negative impact on China in general and on the Uyghurs in particular. The extra-territoriality of the Bingtuan in the P.R.C. –– a military organization beyond the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a government beyond the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and an entrepreneur beyond the marketplace –– calls into question the status of China as a modern nation state that demands a military, legal, and administrative level-playing field. The presence of the Bingtuan also throws up challenges to the economic development of China’s underdeveloped northwest by the central government. The presence of the Bingtuan contributes to the deterioration of Han-Uyghur and Uyghur-state relations. Those familiar with the local histories of Gansu, Shaanxi and Yunnan in the 1870s are aware of the role played by local Han militias in igniting conflict with local ethnic groups. David Atwill’s study of the Han-Hui rebellion in Yunnan in 1870, where the greed for resources of the local Han population converted ethnic tension into open conflict, provides an excellent case in point. The striking similarities between the militias of the past and the Bingtuan institution of the present day are: (1) both institutions are staffed by the Han; and (2) both justify their economic gains with reference to maintaining stability and state sovereignty.