By Ilham Tohti, translated by Cindy Carter, published: May 11, 2015
VI. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC)
Today’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps [XPCC, or simply “the Corps”] is a most insular and unique organization. It is often informally described as “an army with no military budget; a government that pays taxes; a labor union made up of farmers; and a business that is a society of its own.”
Opinion regarding the role and function of the Corps is polarized. Officially and in public, the Corps is portrayed as a protector and symbol of social stability in Xinjiang, as well a symbol of Xinjiang’s pioneering spirit. Private opinion is a different matter: privately, a large number of ordinary Corps members complain that the Corps system is the root cause of their growing impoverishment and backwardness. And within the Uighur community, the Corps stands as a symbol of ethnic antagonism.
A social survey we conducted reveals that Uighur attitudes to Han Chinese vary depending on the type of Chinese community. For example, Uighurs felt closest to locally-born Han Chinese, and most at odds with Han Chinese Corps members; Uighur attitudes toward other Han Chinese migrants to Xinjiang fell somewhere in between.
In fact, the vast majority of ordinary Uighurs have few opportunities to interact with Han Chinese Corps members. As such, they lack a basic understanding of realities within the Corps, and may even harbor profound misconceptions. For many Uighurs, their sole impression of the Corps comes through television news footage, which may lead them to believe that everyone in the Corps lives in places like Shihezi: lovely cities with broad avenues, forests of tall buildings, pristine environments, and living standards that far outstrip the rest of Xinjiang. In fact, most people in the Corps live on farms; they work much harder and earn much less than non-Corps Han Chinese living in nearby rural areas. For many years running, the income of Corps members has ranked dead last in the national income rankings. The reality of life in the Corps is that it is insular and increasingly impoverished.
Not coincidentally, Uighur antipathy for the Corps is the direct result of a constant stream of government propaganda trumpeting the political role and accomplishments of the Corps, particularly its role in “opposing the three forces” [of terrorism, religious extremism and separatism.]
The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) was initially established to serve three main functions: military, political, and economic. In today’s environment, the Corps’ military role has all but disappeared, while its political role has been bolstered. The political functions of the Corps can be outlined as follows: (1) maintain social stability and deter separatism; (2) promote ethnic interaction and national unity; (3) effectively manage the continued existence and development of the Corps itself.
Truly, only the first two functions have any value or inherent meaning. Yet judging by the current state of the Corps, those two functions have long since ceased to exist. Various official publications repeatedly cite the same example of the Corps’ role in maintaining stability and deterring separatism: quelling a 1990 “counter-revolutionary armed rebellion” in Baren Township, Akto County, in Xinjiang’s southwest. In fact, although the nearby Corps militia was called up, it played no substantive role in putting down the rebellion.
If something were to happen in the present situation, it should be the People’s Armed Police that responds, rather than the XPCC militia. Taking the unusual step of mobilizing the Corps’ civilian militia would be politically inappropriate in the extreme: after all, why should Han Chinese civilians be given the responsibility, or even the right, to used armed force to suppress an uprising among Uighurs? This would only serve to inflame ethnic tensions. Another fact we cannot help but mention is that the Corps has almost completely lost its ability to mobilize and mount a rapid armed response in the event of an emergency. This is partly because the Corps does not, at a grassroots level, have control over the movements of its young labor force of fighting age, and partly because the young labor force of the Corps is declining due to manpower drain.
As for using the Corps to promote ethnic interaction and national unity, it is out of the question. In China, combining insular political structures with local communities all too often leads to antagonism and estrangement: witness the estrangement between inland rural communities and China’s “Third-Front” factories, or between Beijing’s traditional hutong neighborhoods and massive Socialist-era government compounds. The XPCC is an insular institution by nature, isolated even from Xinjiang’s local Han Chinese community. Far from being a symbol of ethnic interaction and national unity, the fact that the Corps has come to be seen by the Uighur community as a symbol of ethnic segregation says a lot about its character.
The current status of the Corps is summarized below: on the political front, not only has the Corps lost its role as a deterrent against separatism, it has lost its political raison d’être; on the fiscal front, the Corps has become a financial burden to the government; on the social front, the Corps is facing a severe population drain; on the economic front, the Corps must contend with an increasingly impoverished constituency; on the legal front, the precise legal standing (or even the legality) of the Corps has never been adequately established; on the ethnic relations front, the Corps has become a symbol of ethnic antagonism; on the institutional front, the Corps is the last bastion of centralized economic planning in China—it has failed to implement even the “contract responsibility system,” a system of market-based economic reforms that have been in place in other areas of China for over three decades; on the status front, the Corps is an awkward amalgam of “party, military, government and private industry”: it is all of the above, and yet none of the above; and finally, on the local relations front, the Corps has never served its stated purpose of “clarifying and coordinating” relations with the local population.
The XPCC is essentially a modern version of the ancient “biantun” system [of agriculturally self-supporting military garrisons.] It is the outgrowth of a particular system during a particular period of history. More than any other organizational system, the Corps is an embodiment of China’s six decades of centralized economic planning. That it continues to exist at all is due, not so much to Xinjiang’s unique frontier environment, but to two decisive factors: the first involves a certain conceptual understanding; the second involves the problem of vested interests.
The Corps continues to exist as a highly complex and redundant bureaucracy, a society unto itself, an administrative unit possessing provincial-level powers, having every comparable entity except for Congress of People’s Representative and the People’s Political Consultative Conference (although all of the Corps’ division-level farms and up have their own television stations), and serving as a vast support system for a large number of people. At present, an abrupt dissolution of the Corps seems highly unlikely. This is because the Corps has come to be seen as a tangible affirmation of certain specific historical achievements.
Nonetheless, regarding the continued existence of the Corps, we must consider the following questions:
- As for the Corps being a deterrent to secession, is it necessary to entrust this task to an armed militia external to the country’s formal armed forces? Is the Corps, in its role as a unique social organization, an adequate military deterrent? And is it equipped to carry out this task?
- If the answers to the above questions are affirmative, how then should we view the ethnic opposition and suspicion that the Corps has, in fact, provoked? How do we weigh the political pros and cons?
- The Corps clearly has the strong backing of the central government, which trumpets the role of the Corps as a deterrent to secessionism. The implicit assumption is that the central government does not trust non-Han Chinese ethnic minorities. But is this worth the political cost?
- With problems in Xinjiang attracting increased international attention, it is easy to view the Corps as nothing more than an organized militia of armed migrants. If the Corps is to survive in the long term, how do we address the problem of its identity in modern society?
- Viewed from any angle, the organizational system of the Corps is grossly incompatible with contemporary Chinese society. Supposing there are no fundamental changes to Xinjiang’s internal or external environment, is the continued existence of the Corps really necessary?
Thoughts and Recommendations
- For both practical and technical reasons, it would be difficult to disband the Corps in the short run, and this would probably breed more problems than it would solve. Nonetheless, it is necessary to begin discussing and making arrangements for the Corps’ gradual withdraw from the historical stage.
- While recognizing the Corps’ contributions to land reclamation and border security during a unique period in history, it is now appropriate to dial down the propaganda about the role of the Corps in opposing and deterring separatism, because this only serves to undermine national unity—the Corps is distrusted by the Uighur community, while Uighurs are distrusted by Han Chinese in the Corps.
- Assuming that the Corps remains fundamentally intact, move forward with urbanization based on local conditions and considerations. In places where the process of urbanization is complete, pilot programs should be initiated to integrate Corps and local government.
- Resolving the problem of population drain must begin with the land policy. A systematic plan is needed to sort out institutional conflicts about the long-term allocation of land, usage rights, income and shares between the state, the Corps, its divisions, regimental farms, and individual workers. Only by establishing a clear-cut, permanent relationship between land and individuals can we resolve the problem of population drain; otherwise, the cost of maintaining the Corps will become too exorbitant.
- The transfer of high-quality local mineral resources to the private sector is not a lasting solution to the Corps’ financial predicament. Given the institutional rigidity of the Corps, this seems to run counter to the spirit of reform, and may not be sound economic strategy.
- The Corps should exercise its political function, as the state propaganda proclaims, of promoting ethnic exchange and ethnic unity. When addressing the issue of population drain, the Corps should remain open to outside perspectives, and maximize the benefits of local and regional labor surpluses by encouraging these workers to migrate to under-populated Corps areas.
- In comparison to Uighur rural communities, the Corps has unparalleled advantages in agricultural production technology and techniques. The central or local government could appropriate special funds to create and broadcast, on Corps television stations, Uighur language programs and public-service-style broadcasts designed to share this wealth of knowledge. By sharing and spreading its agricultural knowledge and experience with a Uighur audience, the Corps can help transform traditional, insular production methods and mindsets, and make an important contribution to fostering communication and cohesion between different ethnic groups.
 The “Third Front” program, carried out between 1964 and 1971, was an attempt to create a secure inland military-industrial base that could serve as a bulwark in the event of China being drawn into a war. The program involved large-scale investment in defense, technology, basic industries, transportation and infrastructure, and the relocation of factories from vulnerable coastal (“first front”) and central (“second front”) cities to remote rural regions of southwestern and northwestern China. – Translator
- My Ideals and the Career Path I Have Chosen, Ilham Tohti’s autobiographic essay.
- Ilham Tohti’s Statement after Receiving a Life Sentence for Allegedly “Separatist” Crimes, September 25, 2014.
- Ilham Tohti Says, September 17, 2014
- Excerpts from “My West China, Your East Turkestan” — My View on the Kunming Incident, by Wang Lixiong, March 3, 2014
Chinese original: 《伊力哈木：当前新疆民族问题的现状及建议》