Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a unique relic of Maoist resettlement policies, is at the crux of Beijing’s plans to invest $55bn in agriculture, energy and infrastructure in Pakistan, according to plans leaked by the Dawn newspaper this week. XPCC, known in Chinese as the bingtuan, was set up after the Korean war to move demobilised Chinese soldiers to the Central Asian frontier, where they would “settle the wilderness” and control ethnically distinct borderlands.
Soon after, the settlements morphed into gulags for opponents and sent-down youth during the cultural revolution in the 1960s. Dismantled after that tumultuous decade, XPCC was soon re-established as the fall of the Soviet Union and the large-scale exploitation of oil and gas reserves increased the energy and security importance of Xinjiang — literally, the “new frontier”.
Almost 70 years after its founding, XPCC controls much of the autonomous region’s water resources. It operates vast cotton, tomato and fruit plantations, and controls about a dozen listed companies. XPCC has adopted modern irrigation techniques in order to allocate more water to Xinjiang’s big new coal mines, but still relies heavily on subsidies for its cotton output. Seeds, cotton, yarn and irrigation technology are among the industries it will oversee in Pakistan, according to the proposals. XPCC functions autonomously in Xinjiang, representing a population of about 2m people almost all of whom are Han Chinese.
Its more recent expansion into the heartlands of the ethnic Uighurs in the south of the region has been accompanied by unrest among the local population. In 2013, XPCC leased vast tracts from privatised state farms in Ukraine, investing in irrigation to grow corn, sunflowers and pigs.