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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 14:31 GMT
China's western border 'defenders'
By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, in Xinjiang

Bai Xinguo
Bai Xinguo is proud to defend the land
Bai Xinguo makes a good living tending his tiny orchard, in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

Peaches are his livelihood, providing him with most of his year's income.

But it is not the fruit that keeps him here.

"My first job is to defend the land and protect the border. Growing crops, the economy - that's a number two," he said.

Some 50 years ago Mr Bai's parents answered the call when Chairman Mao commanded his demobilised soldiers to settle China's sprawling west.

Today, the quasi-military corps which took over the area - known as the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or the Bingtuan - still has around 2.5 million armed settlers in Xinjiang.

Mr Bai is one of its most patriotic members.

So as well as tending his orchard, every year he attends 40 days of military training - 20 days in the winter and 20 in the summer.

Everyone in the Bingtuan, from students to workers, must take part.

But who are they defending Xinjiang against?

Any threat to Communist Party rule, said Mr Bai.

"It doesn't matter where the threat comes from - the authorities will tell us, and we'll do our duty," he said.

Han Chinese settlers like Mr Bai - his given names mean new country - have overwhelmed area's indigenous Uighurs, Kazakhs and Mongolians.

The Han Chinese have the best jobs, and the best of Xinjiang's fertile land.

Any person who raises criticism of [the official] view of history or tries to put in light the contribution of Uighurs or other ethnic minorities will immediately be labelled as a separatist
Nicolas Becquelin, Human Rights in China

Many of the workers in the cotton fields are migrant Han Chinese from elsewhere in China, making it more difficult for the ethnic population to find work.

Not far from his farm is the Bingtuan museum. The story told there is that when the Corps arrived they found an empty wasteland. Their sweat and toil transformed the Gobi desert into an oasis, the young guides tell visitors.

There is little mention of the Uighur people who were already living here. And given how brutally China's authorities have suppressed any separatist threat, even mentioning such truths can be dangerous.

"The problem is that any person who raises criticism of [the official] view of history or tries to put in light the contribution of Uighurs or other ethnic minorities will immediately be labelled as a separatist or potential terrorist," said Nicolas Becquelin of the pressure group Human Rights in China.

Hard times

Cotton picking migrant
Han Chinese have been encouraged to populate the west

National unity is what counts, so officially the Han Chinese have always been here and will never leave. But life is getting more difficult for the Bingtuan, according to Wang Cailong, the regimental communist party secretary.

Even though they are defending China, in this increasingly market driven country, the Bingtuan largely have to fend for themselves.

"For every worker there's a retired worker needing support. And at the same time, the worker needs to pay for his own medical insurance," he said.

And they have other problems besides, said Mr Wang.

"As for our kids, there's no doubt about it, they want to head east to the coastal regions. It's a better life there. There's a proverb in China: 'Water always runs down hill, and people are always looking for a better life," he said.

But that message is not getting through to patriots like Bai Xinguo.

"We don't need to worry," he said. "The regiment won't disappear under any circumstances. We're needed here to defend the land and reclaim the border."

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