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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 07   16-31 August 2009

Xinjiang’s Development and the Travail of
Uighur Muslims


They marched through the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and countless small towns propelled by patriotic cheers and thumping drums. It was 1956, and Mao Zedong was calling on China’s youth to “open up the west,” the vast borderland known as Xinjiang that for centuries had defied subjugation. After a month-long journey by train and open-air truck, thousands arrived at this Gobi Desert army outpost to find that the factory jobs, hot baths and telephones in every house were nothing but empty promises to lure them to a faraway land.

“We lived in holes in the ground, and all we did night and day was hard labor,” recalled Han Zuxue, a sun-creased 72-year-old who was a teenager when he left his home in eastern Henan Province. “At first we cried every day but over time we forgot our sadness.”

More than five decades of toil later, men and women like Mr. Han have helped transform Shihezi into a tree-shaded, bustling oasis whose canned tomatoes, fiery grain alcohol and enormous cotton yields are famous throughout China. This city of 650,000 is a showcase of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a uniquely Chinese conglomerate of farms and factories that were created by decommissioned Red Army soldiers at the end of the civil war. “Put your weapons aside and pick up the tools of construction,” one popular slogan went. “Develop Xinjiang, defend the nation’s borders and protect social stability.”

With a total population of 2.6 million, 95 percent of it ethnic Han Chinese, Shihezi and a string of other settlements created by the military are stable strongholds in a region whose majority non-Han populace has often been unhappy under Beijing’s rule. Last month, that discontent showed itself during vicious ethnic rioting that claimed 197 lives in Urumqi, the regional capital, which is a two-hour drive away.

The government says that most of the dead were Han Chinese bludgeoned by mobs of Uighurs, Muslims of Turkish ancestry whose presence in Xinjiang has been steadily diluted by migration from China’s densely populated east. “Ever since we arrived they’ve resented us and had no appreciation for how we’ve improved this place,” said He Zhenjie, 76, who has spent his adult life leveling sand dunes, planting trees and digging irrigation ditches. “But we’re here to stay. The Uighurs will never wrest Xinjiang away.”

Even if many Uighurs view the settlers as nothing more than Chinese colonists, many Chinese consider the bingtuan, meaning soldier corps, a major success. In one fell swoop Mao deployed 200,000 idle soldiers to help develop and occupy a resource-rich, politically strategic region bordering India, Mongolia and the Soviet Union, a onetime ally turned menace.

Shihezi and other bingtuan settlements quickly became self-sufficient, a relief to a government lacking resources, and its “reclamation warriors” worked without pay those first few years, steadily turning thousands of acres of inhospitable scrubland into some of the country’s most fertile terrain. With an annual output of goods and services of $7 billion, the settlements run by the bingtuan include five cities, 180 farming communities and 1,000 companies. They also report directly to Beijing and run their own courts, colleges and newspapers.

“During peaceful times, they are a force for development, but if anything urgent happens, they will step out and maintain social stability and combat the separatists,” said Li Sheng, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a former bingtuan member who writes about the region’s history.

In those early years, the ranks of the bingtuan were fortified by petty criminals, former prisoners of war, prostitutes and intellectuals, all sent west for “re-education.” During the mid-1950s, 40,000 young women were lured to Xinjiang with promises of the good life: they arrived to discover their main purpose was to relieve the loneliness of the male pioneers and cement the region’s Han presence through their progeny.

Demographics have always been a tactical element of the campaign to pacify the region. In 1949, when the Communists declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, there were just 300,000 Han Chinese in Xinjiang. Today, the number of Han has grown to 7.5 million, just over 40 percent of the region’s population. The percentage of Uighurs has fallen to 45 percent, or about 8.3 million.

Their grievances have multiplied even as Xinjiang has grown more prosperous, thanks in part to its huge reserves of natural gas, oil and minerals. Many Uighurs complain about the repression of their Islamic faith, official policies that marginalize their language and a lack of job opportunities, especially at government bureaus and inside the bingtuan. During a recent visit to Shihezi, armed paramilitary policemen stopped every car and bus entering the city. But only Uighurs were made to step out of vehicles for identification checks and searches.

Neatly laid out on a grid, its sidewalks graced by apple trees and elms, the city is populated by the sturdy and defiantly proud who think of Xinjiang as China’s version of Manifest Destiny, the doctrine undergirding the westward expansion of the United States in the 19th century. But just beneath the self-satisfaction runs a deep vein of bitterness, especially among those who arrived in the 1950s and 1960s. “I thought I was going to be a nurse, but I ended up sweeping the streets and cleaning toilets,” said Yue Caiying, who moved here in 1963, and, like many of those with an education, was forced to set aside personal ambition.

Lu Yiping, an author who spent five years interviewing women trucked into Xinjiang from Hunan Province, tells of girls lured with promises of Russian-language classes and textile-mill jobs. In an interview published online, he told the story of arriving women greeted by Wang Zhen, the famously hard-line general who helped tame the region. “Comrades, you must prepare to bury your bones in Xinjiang,” he quoted Mr. Wang as telling the women.

Still, for many early settlers, Xinjiang offered an escape from the deprivation that stalked many rural areas between 1959 and 1962, when Mao’s disastrous attempt to start up China’s industrialization led to famine that killed millions. Early settlers like Ma Xianwu, who arrived here in 1951 and helped dig the first thatch-covered pits that served as shelter, offer a typical mix of conflicted emotions. He expressed wonder at the city he had helped create, but also sorrow over the hardship he and others had endured.

“People would lose ears and toes to frostbite,” said Mr. Ma, who is 94 and nearly toothless. But any sense of bitterness has faded. “We were serving the motherland,” he said, waving off the adulation of a visitor. “The glory belongs to the party. I’m just one drop of water in the ocean.”

(Source: The New York Times, August 6, 2009)

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