From soldiers to farmers

Updated: 2014-10-15 07:16

By Cui Jia and Gao Bo(China Daily)

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From soldiers to farmers

Farmers of the 10th Division of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, also known as the Bingtuan, dry peppers in the Gobi Desert. The Coprs has played a significant role in developing the region. It’s also expected to play a strategic role in the new battle against separatism, extremism and terrorism. ZHANG XI’AN / XINHUA 

New techniques boost crop yields in the desert

Agriculture is a fundamental industry for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, and one in which it is a highly competitive player. The XPCC continues to build large-scale modern farms, which in 2013 grew a total of 1.47 million metric tons of cotton, accounting for 23.3 percent of the national total.

A water-management company operated by the Corps has been experimenting with using drip-irrigation techniques to plant rice on dry farmland, which has resulted in higher yields than traditional planting methods. The new technology is due to be widely used across Xingjiang in 2015.

The per-mu output of the 600 mu (40 hectares) of land used for the experiments has reached nearly 840 kilograms, much higher than the average 500 kilograms achieved by using traditional planting techniques, according to Chen Lin, deputy general manager of the Xinjiang Tianye Water-Saving Irrigation Co.

The company, located in Shihezi, is the largest focused on water-saving irrigation technologies in the Corps and the region. Xinjiang is an arid area, and its water resources are distributed unevenly, a factor that has greatly limited local development.

Unlike traditional flood-irrigation systems, drip irrigation, first developed in Israel, uses pipelines of differing diameters to carry water to plants, either to the immediate top soil or directly to the roots. The technique enables precise management of irrigation and fertilization.

Rice has proved to be the most difficult crop to grow using the drip-irrigation technique among the more than 30 plants on which experiments have been conducted, including cotton, wheat, sugar cane and fruit trees, said Chen, who is also the head of the company's research team.

Traditionally, rice is grown on flat land and requires a huge amount of water. However, the new technique means water usage can be reduced to about 700 cubic meters for each mu of land, less than one-third the previous amount, and ridged land is leveled to increase the planting area by 5 to 7 percent, Chen added.

The lack of free-flowing water has resulted in a reduction of the impact of disease and insect pests, a factor that has been key to increasing output, he said. "Growing the rice on dry land also reduces the discharge of methane, which is good for the environment," he added.

Farmers can add fertilizers and pesticides to the water at pump stations, reducing the amount of chemical residue in the plants and on the ground.

By Gao Bo

"Actually, we can achieve what the army cannot, which is to stay permanently in Xinjiang and build it as our home," he said with a proud smile, as he sat in a museum in Shihezi city, about 150 km west of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang.

The museum houses a vast collection of items, such as the hoes that Zhuo once used, and showcases how the members of the Corps gradually built the city, which was once the headquarters of the Corps before it was moved to Urumqi.

In 1998, the XPCC was given bureaucratic status equal to that of Xinjiang's regional government. The unique, specialized paramilitary force now covers an area of 70,600 square km, and handles its own administrative and judicial affairs under army-like divisions and regiments.

The county-level city of Shihezi is now under the administration of the Bingtuan's Eight Division. Since the XPCC started its urbanization process, six other cities have been established, and there are more to come as the Corps' role has changed from cultivation and border defense to building cities and maintaining social stability.

The XPCC plans to build four cities in the south of Xinjiang by 2020, and a dozen more around the region in the future. The central government believes urbanization is the key to boosting social development to promote regional stability.

"At the beginning, we thought that even building a garden in Shihezi was a fantasy. Now we have a city," said Zhuo, who has been based in a regiment near the city for more than 30 years, helping to cultivate the Gobi Desert from scratch.

Lost authority

During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the XPCC suffered serious disruption in fulfilling its mission, and was dissolved in March 1975. "Those were Bingtuan's dark days," Zhuo said. "We lost our authority. Some of the members were forced to move out of Xinjiang because they were excluded by the local people."

After Deng Xiaoping, the newly elected chairman of the Central Military Commission at the time, visited Shihezi in 1981 he decided to restore the XPCC, which he said was crucial to Xinjiang's stability.

The current central government also expects the Bingtuan to play an important and irreplaceable strategic role in the fight against separatism, extremism and terrorism in Xinjiang in the future.

When he toured Xinjiang in April, President Xi Jinping visited the XPCC's Sixth Division. Xi said more effort is needed to build the Corps into a stabilizing force for the country's border areas, a melting pot where various ethnic groups are integrated, so the XPCC can establish a model region that will showcase advanced productivity and culture.

Zhuo's children and grandchildren have all chosen to stay in the Corp. "I have devoted my life to the Bingtuan, and I am pleased my children decided to do the same so our mission can be passed down from generation to generation. As I said, the Bingtuan is our home now, and there is no other place we'd rather be."