Frontiering the Chinese “West”: a Closer Look

Page 7-2
The concept was (re-)applied only twice under the Mao dynasty, in fact by Mao’s direct command, in both cases with an eye toward potential Soviet infiltration (first in Xinjiang 1954-1975, revived 1981, then in Manchuria), then 1968-1976 in Heilongjiang Uniquely, however, the Xinjiang “Corps” evolved into a kind of economic-developmental node-center, whose units, though still bearing the names of the PLA units who had founded them, were devoid of any active service troops and/or weapons. Why the Xinjiang twin stayed in being or rather was recalled after the Soviet tensions of the Mao end-years had receded, speaks still to colonial policies, but in this second incarnation primarily to those addressed toward what we would call pacification of the Uighur-Muslim minority who were originally the majority when the Territory was first occupied (1950).

It speaks to the nature of the original Colony that the particular military unit/command that inaugurated its activities (in 1954) was under Wang Zhen, the very same Brigadier who had commanded the 359th Infantry Brigade that so famously reclaimed Nanniwan, in the “Frontier Special Region” surrounding Yenan in 1942, in that the soldiers put aside their weapons to bring under cultivation enough marginal land to feed themselves supposedly twice over, thus relieving the burden (and tensions) of feeding off in-kind taxes levied on the mainly poor peasantry. Only here the self-reliance drive functioned to reduce or eliminate exactions from the Moslem population, whose subversion by the Soviets or their “Stan-dom” proxies seemed a serious possibility (akin to that of Japanese/puppet infiltration into Yenan)

By 1975, not only troops (indirectly under Generalissimo Wang), but also the considerable number of “sent-down” (chadui) Han students/youths in Ili had been re/ex-patriated unless volunteering to stay (few did), this latter under the pressure of repeated riots by former Red Guards demanding to be returned to the mainstream conveyor belt, which was certainly not (then) “out West”. The vacuum was refilled fairly quickly after 1981 but by civilians: by the latest count, 2,700,000 employees – almost all Han Chinese – work under its umbrellas, having at their disposal (2011) some 174 separate farms/plantations (nongchang), with a total currently sown acreage (2006) of 1.043 million ha or 15.64 million mu of cropland, the latter still being periodically expanded by further reclamation, meaning expansion of irrigation.

What is most a propos about this system for our current purposes is its insistent reallocation of land after its 1981 rebirth from cereal staples to the core commodity of upland cotton (ludi mian) mainly for export “east” to China’s coastal mills. In 1981, the first full year of renovation, the system harvested 923,000 MT of cereals as against a mere 52,500 MT of cotton lint, implying a land use apportionment of 6 million to 1 million mu in favor of the former, or cereals 75% of land sown, cotton no more than 10%. Current cereals output and land use figures for the Corp. are almost impossible to determine, buried as they are in the obscure and over-fragmented data of public-sector reports, but cotton now claims 7.5 million of the 15.6 million mu sown by the Corp (as of 2006), or around 50% of all planting. Which amounts to 30-35% of all cotton (yield) grown in the Territory. or about 17% of the approx 1.3/7-8 million MT grown in China as a whole.

At that scale, the Xinjiang cotton experiment is no longer an experiment, and the Corps is no longer an adjunct or extension service, but a major player seemingly intent on becoming even more so.

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