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From soldiers to farmers

Cui Jia/Gao Bo
Updated: Oct 15,2014 10:20 AM     China Daily

Farmers of the 10th Division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as the Bingtuan, dry peppers in the Gobi Desert. The Coprs has played a significant role in developing the region. It’s also expected to play a strategic role in the new battle against separatism, extremism and terrorism.[Photo by ZHANG XI’AN/XINHUA]

A special force is celebrating its achievements in the tough environment of Xinjiang, where it has built farms and homes, and maintained stability, as Cui Jia in Urumqi and Gao Bo in Shihezi report.

Zhuo Bingzhe vividly remembers how he joined the People’s Liberation Army in his hometown in Northwest China’s Shanxi province 65 years ago, and moved to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region as a soldier. He also clearly remembers the day he was ordered to put down his gun and pick up a hoe to become a member of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or XPCC, founded 60 years ago.

The 81-year-old, who still speaks with a heavy Shanxi accent, was just one of the 100,000-plus PLA soldiers who formed the Corps, which is also known as the Bingtuan. In October 1954, the central government decided to demobilize the troops in Xinjiang and set up arable and stock farms in the harsh environments of the Gobi Desert and the region’s border areas.

“One day, we were told to join the Corps, and that was that. As a soldier I simply followed orders. I wasn’t afraid of the harsh environment at all. The only worry I had was where I would find a wife because there were only men in the regiments and we were in the middle of nowhere,” Zhuo said, with a laugh.

By the end of 2013, the Corps had 14 divisions and 176 regiments, and its 2.7 members accounted for nearly 12 percent of Xinjiang’s total population.

However, Zhuo knew from day one that he wasn’t just an ordinary farmer. As a member of the XPCC, he needed to be ready to be a part of a special force that would fight when the country needed them, either to defend the borders, or, more recently, to combat terrorism.

In 1962, some local residents in northern Xinjiang’s Ili and Tacheng areas crossed the border illegally, leaving their homes forever. The XPCC dispatched more than 17,000 officials and workers to the areas to maintain social order and tend the farmland and livestock of those that had left. The Corps also quickly set up a belt of regimental farms along more than 2,000 km of the border area.

Threats grow

Since the 1980s, the threats to Xinjiang’s social stability presented by separatism, religious extremism and terrorism have grown. To confront the threats, emergency militia battalions have been established in the Corps that can respond rapidly to terrorist activities, according to a white paper on the XPCC’s history and development issued by the State Council Information Office on Oct 6.

Chen Jiazhu, the Corps’ deputy commander, said: “The XPCC is not an army, but it certainly has the power to maintain social stability. Normally, everyone performs different production tasks. When we are required for missions, we must be ready. The Corps aims to become a top militia force in China and stabilize Xinjiang.

“Actually, we can achieve what the army cannot, which is to stay permanently in Xinjiang and build it as our home,” he said with a proud smile, as he sat in a museum in Shihezi city, about 150 km west of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

The museum houses a vast collection of items, such as the hoes that Zhuo once used, and showcases how the members of the Corps gradually built the city, which was once the headquarters of the Corps before it was moved to Urumqi.

In 1998, the XPCC was given bureaucratic status equal to that of Xinjiang’s regional government. The unique, specialized paramilitary force now covers an area of 70,600 square km, and handles its own administrative and judicial affairs under army-like divisions and regiments.

The county-level city of Shihezi is now under the administration of the Bingtuan’s Eight Division. Since the XPCC started its urbanization process, six other cities have been established, and there are more to come as the Corps’ role has changed from cultivation and border defense to building cities and maintaining social stability.

The XPCC plans to build four cities in the south of Xinjiang by 2020, and a dozen more around the region in the future. The central government believes urbanization is the key to boosting social development to promote regional stability.

“At the beginning, we thought that even building a garden in Shihezi was a fantasy. Now we have a city,” said Zhuo, who has been based in a regiment near the city for more than 30 years, helping to cultivate the Gobi Desert from scratch.

Lost authority

During the “cultural revolution” (1966-76), the XPCC suffered serious disruption in fulfilling its mission, and was dissolved in March 1975. “Those were Bingtuan’s dark days,” Zhuo said. “We lost our authority. Some of the members were forced to move out of Xinjiang because they were excluded by the local people.”

After Deng Xiaoping, the newly elected chairman of the Central Military Commission at the time, visited Shihezi in 1981 he decided to restore the XPCC, which he said was crucial to Xinjiang’s stability.

The current central government also expects the Bingtuan to play an important and irreplaceable strategic role in the fight against separatism, extremism and terrorism in Xinjiang in the future.

When he toured Xinjiang in April, President Xi Jinping visited the XPCC’s Sixth Division. Xi said more effort is needed to build the Corps into a stabilizing force for the country’s border areas, a melting pot where various ethnic groups are integrated, so the XPCC can establish a model region that will showcase advanced productivity and culture.

Zhuo’s children and grandchildren have all chosen to stay in the Corp. “I have devoted my life to the Bingtuan, and I am pleased my children decided to do the same so our mission can be passed down from generation to generation. As I said, the Bingtuan is our home now, and there is no other place we’d rather be.”

Farmers make tools for their work in the early days following the Bingtuan’s establishment in 1954.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

MOVIES AND MARRIAGE

Finding wives for the more than 100,000 unmarried People’s Liberation Army soldiers who formed the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps in 1954 was one of the most urgent and difficult tasks facing the central government at the time.

In the early days, most of the regiments consisted solely of male soldiers, and they were based in the harsh environments of the Gobi Desert and Xinjiang’s border regions. The soldiers’ chances of meeting a woman were almost zero, according to Lu Zhenou, who arrived in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region as a fresh-faced 20-year-old PLA soldier from the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region in South China.

To solve the problem, large numbers of female soldiers were recruited from Shandong province in the East and Central China’s Hunan province, several years after the corp was founded, the 85-year-old recalled.

Lu met his wife, Song Yulan, who came from Shandong, at the end of 1954 when the pair’s division was preparing for a yangko (a popular rural folk dance) performance to cheer the troops up.

“I noticed her at once, because she always stepped on other people’s feet during rehearsals,” Lu said. To get to know her, Lu asked Song to stay late for a one-on-one exercise lesson. Later, she asked Lu to apply her makeup before the performance. “At that moment, I knew we were in love,” he said.

One day, Lu discovered that Song had suddenly been assigned to a different company in another regiment. “I had no idea where she had gone, and she didn’t have my address, so we couldn’t even write to each other,” Lu said. To find her, he took a job showing movies so he could travel to different companies under the divisions. “Wherever I went, I asked for her whereabouts,” he said.

A year later, when Lu finally caught up with his wife-to-be, he was ecstatic to find that she had also been looking for him. The couple now live in Shihezi, which is under the administration of the Eighth Division, with their three children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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