The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), known as Bingtuan (兵团) in Chinese, is a quasi-military and business conglomerate located in Xinjiang that governs a population of 2.6 million people of whom more than 200,000 are Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups. Founded in 1954 as a conglomerate of state-owned agricultural and stock-raising farms, the original XPCC settlers were comprised of decommissioned soldiers, captive Nationalist armed forces, and “rusticated youth,” who were inspired by Mao’s revolutionary dream of converting the Westernmost desert areas into arable land. In the last six decades, XPCC has grown from a population of 170,000 to a population of 2.6 million. The conglomerate now controls an area close to the size of Taiwan within the restive province of Xinjiang.
Photo credit: The Economist
From its onset, XPCC was tasked with the mission of “safeguarding the frontier, maintaining stability and promoting ethnic unity.” Its official goal of safeguarding state security remains unchanged today. As a distinct administrative unit with its own educational, healthcare, and residence registration system, XPCC also operates as a separate jurisdiction with its own police force, procuratorates, courts, and prisons independent of the Xinjiang provincial government. In March 2012, XPCC established its own state security bureau with the aim of investigating and cracking down on endangering state security (ESS) activities. Xinjiang is believed to account for the majority of ESS cases in China; ESS crimes include splittism, subversion, and incitement. Dui Hua has previously reported that Xinjiang concluded 1,542 ESS trials during 2010-2014. The number of defendants in such cases is unknown. Dui Hua believes that the reported figures on crime in Xinjiang does not cover XPCC-controlled areas.
Has XPCC lived up to its duty to safeguard state security? Dui Hua’s research into government annals has uncovered over a decade of ESS arrests and indictments in XPCC from 2003-2015. When compared with the numbers available from other Chinese provinces and municipalities, it is clear that XPCC accounts for a disproportional amount of the arrests and indictments for ESS crimes.
Arrests and Indictments for Endangering State Security Cases in Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, Chongqing Municipality and Nationwide
The table above shows that 237 individuals were arrested in 80 cases and 209 indicted in 60 cases in the last 13 years in XPCC. When compared with other Chinese provinces and municipalities and given its population size, XPCC makes a staggering number of ESS arrests and indictments. For example, in Chongqing, home to 30.17 million people in 2015, 35 individuals were arrested in 25 cases and 29 individuals were indicted in 23 cases from 2002-2016. Dui Hua’s research into government gazettes in Shandong, Jiangsu, and Henan indicated that the number of individuals arrested or indicted in each year from 2014-2016 for ESS crimes ranged from one to a little over a dozen. The three provinces have a population of 98.5 m, 79.8 m, and 107 m, respectively.
ESS arrests in XPCC stagnated for many years until 2008. In 2008, the number of arrested individuals surged to 38. In 2011, one person was indicted in XPCC for ESS for every 24 individuals indicted nationwide; in 2014, XPCC arrested one person for every 16 individuals arrested for ESS nationwide. The surge in 2008 occurred just one year before the Urumqi riots of July 2009 and coincided with the nationwide increase of ESS arrests and indictments in 2008. Official news media reported that 1,295 individuals were arrested, and 1,154 individuals were indicted in Xinjiang in the first eleven months of 2008, accounting for 75.6 percent and 82 percent of the nationwide ESS arrests and indictments.
Religious Persecution in Endangering State Security Cases
ESS cases involving Uyghurs are linked to the crackdown on religious freedom in Xinjiang. From June to July 2009, the 4th Agricultural Division Intermediate People’s Court sentenced a group of 17 Uyghurs to three-five years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism and inciting racial hatred. According to Ili Evening News, the group organized underground religious activities to celebrate the holy holiday of Ramadan and to teach the Quran. Hazreteli Abbas, one of the 17 imprisoned, was additionally sentenced for “harboring criminals” after allegedly providing financial aid to members seeking to leave China, despite knowing that they were wanted by police.
The 2015 census indicated that there were 229,100 Uyghur residents in XPCC, accounting for less than 10 percent of the entire XPCC population. However, the majority of the ESS cases in XPCC known to Dui Hua involve Uyghurs accused of splittism or inciting splittism. In XPCC, a single ESS case can often involve over a dozen Uyghur individuals, who tend to receive substantially harsher treatment and prison terms than their Han counterparts. On July 23, 1999, the 4th Agricultural Division Intermediate People’s Court sentenced 18 Uyghurs to 10-15 years’ imprisonment for splittism at a public sentencing rally. The rally was held in an open-air theater, with an audience of more than 1,300 individuals from the 64th Brigade of the Fourth Agricultural Division. Only three of the individuals sentenced names are known: Abdurazaq Abdureshit, Ekrem Qurbantay and Shirmemet Abdureshit. All defendants in the case were likely released in the early 2010s.
Dui Hua’s PPDB has information on four other Uyghurs incarcerated for ESS (see table below), three of whom were sentenced alongside five to fifteen other defendants. Available sources do not provide details on the case specifics.
|1st Agricultural Division
|Splittism, illegally manufacturing of weapons/
|Death with reprieve
|Sentence commuted to life
|Case specifics unclear
|1st Agricultural Division Intermediate People’s Court
|3rd Agricultural Division Intermediate People's Court
|Part of the 10
|An intermediate court in XPCC
|Sentenced alongside 5 other
In My West China; Your East Turkestan《我的西域，你的东土》, dissident writer Wang Lixiong calls XPCC a “Han autonomous province within Xinjiang Autonomous Region.” While Han Chinese account for 86 percent of XPCC’s population, only a handful are known to be involved in ESS cases. Liu Weifang (刘卫方) is one such individual. Liu was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment by the 9th Brigade Intermediate Court for inciting subversion. He posted dozens of articles on multiple Internet forums, “viciously attacking the party, national leaders, the socialist system and party principles and policies.” Liu is believed to have completed his sentence before 2004. In a rare disclosure, the XPCC procuratorate website stated that its 4th Division Branch arrested an individual surnamed Yang for inciting subversion in September 2017. Like Liu, Yang was accused of using social networking apps to disseminate information and spread “rumors” about the party and socialism.
The charge of incitement is also used against Falun Gong practitioners who distribute publications critical of the party. One such case took place in XPCC. In November 2014, Wang Xiaoying (王晓莺) was criminally detained for two weeks for inciting subversion. Although the charge was eventually dropped, Wang was later arrested and sentenced to three years and six months’ imprisonment for using/organizing a cult to undermine implementation of the law. She is currently being held in Urumqi Women’s Prison and is due for release in 2019.
From Endangering State Security to Terrorism
Dui Hua has previously reported on the growing trend of authorities charging individuals with “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” for acts that would have previously resulted in charges for inciting subversion. Both Xinjiang and XPCC appear to have followed suit, applying a similar switching tactic of criminalization to obscure cases of a political nature. As such the drop in ESS arrests and indictments in 2015 by no means indicates a relaxation of suppression. Moreover, Uyghurs are now more likely to face prosecution for terrorism than splittism or inciting splittism.
Dui Hua’s research into online judgments discovered a case, involving four Uyghurs in their early twenties, who were initially detained and arrested for inciting splittism but subsequently sentenced in 2013 for organizing/leading/actively participating in a terrorist organization. The XPCC 14th Division Intermediate People’s Court sentenced the men to two to ten years’ imprisonment.
Receiving the lengthiest sentence of the four, Abdusalam Abulat was accused of watching videos and listening to audio materials about “jihad” and “hegira” with his uncle Ababaikerim Mahmut, who was previously sentenced in Hotan to two years’ imprisonment for inciting splittism in 2010. According to the judgment, the uncle spoke about his resentment towards Han Chinese in Xinjiang. “In our hometown Xinjiang today, we are not allowed to have more than three children; otherwise we will be forced to undergo abortions. Women are forced to put on contraceptive devices… We cannot worship outside of mosques. Men cannot keep beards. Not only are students forbidden to wear Islamic clothes, but also headscarves…” The uncle said Muslims should “migrate” to other Islamic nations to strengthen their religious faith before they conduct “jihad” upon their return to Xinjiang and that the first step of “hegira” was to apply for passports to study abroad in Malaysia or Indonesia and eventually Afghanistan.
Abdusalam Abulat shared his uncle's interpretations of “jihad” and “hegira” with his co-workers at a textile factory in Shihezi and started learning Arabic with them. The court alleged that they had discussed plans to leave for Afghanistan via Kashgar. Even though the four had not committed any violent acts, the court held that the physical and shooting training they received with replica guns in the factory yard of their dormitory constituted acts of terrorism.
Court judgments involving incitement, splittism, and terrorism frequently conflate the terms “jihad” and “hegira” with violence. Despite its common mistranslation as “holy war”, jihad embraces a much wider religious meaning of a non-violent struggle that prompts one to be a good Islamic believer, according to The Islamic Supreme Council of America. A Diplomat article titled “Uyghur Terrorism: A Misnomer”states that "some governments are prone to label as terrorism all violent acts committed by their political opponents... and "[G]overnments may be tempted by a ready-made narrative to back up the claim that domestic unrest derives from outside influences rather than from authentic local concerns.” Overseas observers have criticized China’s terrorism laws as being overly vague. The laws do not require actual action or violence to have taken place for authorities to initiate prosecution and other restrictions, allowing for the conflation of dissenters with terrorists.
A Bulwark of State Security?
Since its founding, XPCC has justified its raison d'être by citing the threat of ethnic unrest, social instability, and splittist activities. Severely damaged during the Cultural Revolution, XPCC was reinstated in 1981 by Deng Xiaoping as “the key force of maintaining stability in Xinjiang.” Hu Jintao has praised XPCC as a “mighty construction army” for the quelling of the 2009 Urumqi Riots. Xi Jinping has described wanting the XPCC to combat terrorism in Xinjiang with its “walls made of copper and steel” and “nets spread from the earth to sky.”
Delegated as a bulwark against “the three evil forces of terrorism, extremism, and separatism,” XPCC has extended its reach to southern Xinjiang, where a number of attacks have reportedly occurred. In January 2016, the State Council approved the establishment of Kunyu City in Hotan, a prefecture largely dominated by Uyghurs. The new county-level city is administered by XPCC’s 14th Agricultural Division. In 2017, an official news media article recommended that XPCC create a Special Economic Zone in southern Xinjiang modelled on Shenzhen to create opportunities for the many ethnic minorities who cannot speak Mandarin, have few educational opportunities, and are “extremely religious” and “dissatisfied with the status quo.” Beijing is seen to have turned a deaf ear to complaints that XPCC is taking away valuable resources from its Uyghur population, including vast amounts of arable land and abundant water resources.
Observers and scholars have described the government’s attempts to control the Uyghur population as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The perceived threats to state security and social stability provided the initial justification for the creation of XPCC. As the conglomerate expanded, the area saw an influx of Han migration drawn in by business opportunities; efforts to secularize the region routinely deny Uyghurs access to economic and political opportunities. Consequently, the already conspicuous ethnic tensions continue to mount. Contrary to its alleged mission to “safeguard the frontier, maintain stability and promote ethnic unity,” XPCC is giving its Uyghur residents even more reason to flee or seek greater autonomy.