November 1, 2005

China’s Farmer Army Defends Forgotten Frontier

By Emma Graham-Harrison

SHIHEZI, China (Reuters) - Raking a spread of drying chili peppers, Gao Hong looks like millions of other farmers scattered throughout China, but his thoughts are on more than how much the harvest will bring in.

"My first priority is to defend the country's borders," says Gao, 50, whose loyal parents named him Red (Hong) -- the color of the Communist Party.

He belongs to a paramilitary organization called the Construction and Production Corps, formed in the 1950s by disbanded soldiers to bring restive areas of the country firmly under Beijing's control.

As China moved away from a planned economy, its "regiments" were dissolved and the group has survived only in remote western Xinjiang province, where Han Chinese are officially a minority.

But in Xinjiang it is thriving with 2.4 million members.

Borders with conflict-torn Afghanistan and several Central Asian nations, tremendous oil wealth and a large, often-unhappy minority population of Turkic-speaking Uighurs means there is plenty for Beijing to worry about.

Officials say the once-secretive group, known in Chinese as "bingtuan" (military formation), has severed links to the military, but its members still spend 40 days a year in training, to ensure they can take up a gun again if needed.

"We were all soldiers, until Mao (Zedong) told us to lay down our arms and turn our efforts to production and construction," said Wang Cailong, commissar and party secretary of the 143 regiment that controls most of Shihezi.

Human rights activists say the group was also told to colonize areas that historically belonged to ethnic minorities. Wang says they only settled empty areas.

"We station our troops to populate as well as guard the border regions ... we are not soldiers now but we still shoulder the task of ensuring the stability of the area," Wang said.

The regiment grows fruit, cotton and spices, to earn its 6,200 working members 16,000 yuan a year -- enough to hire migrant laborers from far-off Henan province for the back-breaking work of cotton picking.


Life for the first arrivals was far harder. A museum celebrating them shows crude wooden spinning wheels and plows beside sketches of the underground caves they dug as homes.

Coats so patched the original fabric is no longer visible are preserved behind glass, together with praise for socialist heroes such as tractor driver Jin Maofang, who did 20 years' work in just seven.

But the hard-working pioneers would barely recognize the town they founded or the high-tech sophistication of parts of the bingtuan -- now an industrial and agricultural conglomerate.

Skyscrapers have sprouted to replace the caves, and the corps owns China's top provider of water-saving irrigation systems.

But modernization also brought losses, of jobs and security, that accompanied China's post-Mao transformation nationwide.

"I grew up in the bingtuan, but I've been driving a taxi for seven or eight years now. Their economic situation hasn't been great since the reforms and I had to leave," said one worn-down city resident who didn't want to give his name.

And as the town is spruced up, developers are knocking down some of the primitive brick houses of the earliest arrivals to put up modern, but pricey, apartment blocks.

A government official said all owners were compensated, but locals told a different story.

"People are not getting enough compensation to buy new homes and some have nowhere to go," the driver added.


Those who have managed to hang on in the corps are convinced that their special status will protect a cradle-to-grave welfare system crumbling in much of the rest of China.

"We don't have to worry because (China) cannot do without the bingtuan -- it protects the western gate to the country," says peach farmer Bai Xinguo.

"Of course we will be here for generations, because our main task is to protect the country."

His first name, chosen by parents who moved from Sichuan in 1949, means "new country," but Bai seems to be holding on to an old dream of a welfare state now vanished from most of China.

And it is far from clear that their children will be around to care for the next generation of retirees.

Gao Hong's 24-year-old daughter has married and moved to the provincial capital, Urumqi, where she works in a steel factory. He misses her but she has to make a living, he says.

Even the leaders admit their youngsters are tempted by the bright lights of wealthy east coast cities such as Shanghai -- although they say love of the land lures enough back.

"Most kids are quite willing to go to the coastal areas as they are better developed than the Xinjiang region," Wang says.

"People always seek better conditions, just as water always runs downhill."