23 February 2019
A crowd shops at a bazaar in Hotan, where the Xinjiang Production & Engineering Corps has a brigade. Photo:AFP
A crowd shops at a bazaar in Hotan, where the Xinjiang Production & Engineering Corps has a brigade. Photo:AFP

Settler-soldiers on security front line in Xinjiang

When the Politburo met Monday to discuss the worsening security crisis in Xinjiang, they agreed on a series of steps. Among them was to enlarge the role and operations of China’s settler-soldiers, the Xinjiang Production & Engineering Corps, known as the Bingtuan.

These 2.68 million people are the front line of Beijing’s control of this angry region. The Bingtuan is the biggest single employer and landowner in the region and controls about a third of all the Han population and one-third of the region’s arable land. It is so powerful that it is not under the control of the autonomous region’s government but answers directly to Beijing.

Last year its GDP was just under 200 billion yuan (US$32.40 billion), 24 per cent of the region’s total, with 174 sprawling collective farms, 4,391 industrial, construction and communications companies and at least 15 labour reform camps.

During his visit to Xinjiang at the end of April, President Xi Jinping inspected a military parade of the Bingtuan showing their new weapons. “In the new situation, your work can only be strengthened,” he said. “It cannot weaken.”

The Bingtuan was established in 1954 out of an army of 200,000 commanded by General Tao Zhiyue, a former Kuomintang commander. Chairman Mao gave gave it the mission of contributing to national defence, absorbing demobilized servicemen and Han settlers and developing the economy.

For the last 60 years, it has continued to fulfil these three roles and has been the pioneer in Han settlement. It has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders. Han now account for 40 per cent of the 22.6 million people in Xinjiang, compared to 2 per cent when the Bingtuan was founded. Northern Xinjiang, which contains most of the region’s precious natural resources, has a Han majority; they account for 75 per cent of the population of the capital Urumqi.

Beijing’s aim is to repeat what it has done in Inner Mongolia and is doing in Tibet and other frontier regions – sinicize them and link them as closely to the rest of China economically, linguistically and culturally, as Guangzhou or Shenyang.

It is this that angers many Uyghurs, some to the extent that they have chosen armed resistance. “There is greater discontent now and recognition that the Uyghur character of the region is being irretrievably lost,” said Ahmed Hashim, a terrorism expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University.

The recent spate of violent attacks has highlighted the military function of the Bingtuan. It has a 120,000-strong militia that is trained and supervised by the People’s Liberation Army, which controls its equipment and inventories and inspects its performance.

Writing in the official press this week, Bingtuan political commissar Che Jun said that, since 1954, it had, in conjunction with border troops and the People’s Armed Police (PAP), been involved in combating more than 200 incidents of violence and terrorism.

“The nature of the Bingtuan is that its members are part farmer and part soldier. As long as he receives training and weapons practice, he can respond immediately to an emergency situation and fulfil his duty,” he said.

The PAP, which has been trained in Israel and China by Israelis, plays the main role in combating the violence in Xinjiang. Israel’s ambassador to Beijing is Matan Vilnai, a former major general of the Israeli Defence Forces, who created LOTAR, a Hebrew acronym for fighting terrorism and counterterrorism, to respond to threats in the south of Israel, far from the centre – as south Xinjiang is to Beijing.

What the Bingtuan can add to these operations is their knowledge of local conditions and geography, especially villages and rural areas.

Writing in a mainland magazine last week, commentator Zhu Jiangming said that it was this local knowledge that made the Bingtuan invaluable. “For more than 10 years, the United States has set up local militias in Iraq and Afghanistan to fight terrorism, at enormous cost. But they lack effective local human resources and have failed. The terrorist threat has not been controlled and become worse and worse.”

The centre of the rebellion is in south Xinjiang, where the Bingtuan has three brigades – in Hotan, Kashgar and Aksu. It has long advocated the establishment of more settlements in the south to increase the Han population and make it easier to control. In 2004, it established the 224th regiment 75km west of Hotan, where anti-Han feeling is strong. The regiment now has a permanent population of 12,000, many of them migrants from Henan and Gansu.

The only Chinese who challenges the Bingtuan in public is writer Wang Lixiong, author of “My West Land, Your East Turkestan. Banned on the mainland, it was published in Taiwan in 2007. He argues that the Bingtuan alienates itself from the local governments and from Uyghurs and is exacerbating the hatred between the races. “Solving the Xinjiang problem is inseparable from solving the Bingtuan problem,” he wrote.

The writer is a Hong Kong-based journalist and author.

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Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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