Chatting with English readers about Xinjiang China
By Jerry Wen Yang / Translated from Chinese by Robert Goh
The Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region lies in northwestern China, with an area about seven times that of the UK, six times that of New Zealand, or twice the size of New South Wales in Australia.
It is located in a remote part of the country, with a relatively backward economy. So, when people talk about China, Xinjiang does not immediately come to mind. So much so that when people finally set foot in this region for the first time, many of them cannot help but wonder at China’s sheer size: imagine how large all of China must be, to be able to encompass such a large forgotten corner!
Xinjiang can be described as forgotten mainly because it has long been overshadowed by the halo of China’s economic miracle. It’s far from the coastline, criss-crossed by three huge mountain ranges, and its climatic conditions are rather poor, so it certainly doesn’t boast of leading development.
However, from another perspective, namely that of China’s national security, its importance exceeds that of any other region.
Open a map and you’ll see that Xinjiang boasts a 5600 kilometre-long border with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – a total of eight nations.
Of the 21 million people living in Xinjiang, there is a total of 55 different nationalities in the mix, including those of the neighbouring countries. And eight kinds of religions coexist, including Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Buddhism etc; these are the prevailing beliefs of the nations of Central Asia.
How to bring about peace, stability, economic development and how to improve people’s livelihoods in such a sprawling border region where different races live together, where dissimilar religions run parallel, and where the national border stretches so long, touching many countries, is a subject which poses rare and difficult strategic issues not only for the Chinese government, but even for the world at large.
Historically speaking, effective governance by the Chinese central government over this region can be traced back to before 100 BC, during the time of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. However, real national rule in the modern sense of state sovereignty and territorial integrity dawned only after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
After the Civil War, reclamation of the desert land and organized settlement began when the People’s Liberation Army entered Xinjiang with almost 200,000 men. It set up the Xinjiang Military Area Production and Construction Corps in the Gobi wastelands on the edge of the great deserts, opening up farmland for cultivation.
Unless one sees it with one’s own eyes, it’s hard for outsiders to envisage what kind of “reclamation” and “construction” was involved. Reclamation here wasn’t a matter of land-grabbing from local indigenous peoples, but transforming stony dunes into fields in desolate locations, starting off with the most primitive farming. And construction? There were no materials or resources transported from outside and technical aid was nil. It was left entirely to the soldiers to open up the land with their own back-breaking efforts, creating homes with their bare hands.
And the so-called “homes” and “houses” – words that call up to mind domestic comfort and bliss – were actually rude pits dug in the ground, The “wives” were women so assigned and deployed from outside by the organisation, clothing was patched and repatched old army wear, and what they subsisted on was the most basic survival food. China’s soldiers had just come out of a war; now the war momentum was shunted into production, towards laying infrastructure for future construction.
Such is this tale that can only emerge out of China’s frontier region. English readers may realise that when settlers came upon the New World, the best lands were taken away from the native peoples. But here the settlers chose instead remote wastelands that no one cultivated. Rather than tapping into local assets, they turned to hard work starting from scratch. They peacefully came to terms with all the indigenous peoples, promoting mutually beneficial cooperation, building new homes one by one, and constructing new cities one after another.
Today Xinjiang is modern place. The pioneering scenes of heroic struggles against the land back then can now only be seen in museums and parks that preserve such remains. But the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps still lives on. So, a civilian city is also an Army division; military organization and civilian city are one, and the government and industry are also one.
One may justify the West’s history of frontier expansion and colonisation through the twin concepts of freedom and democracy, because conquest and plunder can occur under the guise of freedom. But in the history of the opening up of China’s border region in Xinjiang, the only two concepts were production and construction. It was so then, and it remains so today.
Jerry Wen Yang