China’s not-so-secret weapon against terrorism

China’s own version of the East India Company holds the key to understanding how Beijing plans to tame its restive Muslim province following a string of deadly terrorist attacks.

The East India Company ruled the subcontinent for a bit over a century under a royal charter. The great Indian Rebellion of 1858 effectively ended its rule in India when London decided to send its own viceroy to look after the crown jewel of the empire.

The company was a strange beast in that it combined a trading house with a powerful private army and administrative services. It controlled a vast swathe of land in India while monopolising trades in goods such as cotton, silk, salt, tea and opium.

It is still remembered as an intriguing chapter of British rule in India. However, it may surprise many to point out that there is a similar beast that exists in the world. It’s China’s Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps.

Similar to the East India Company, the Corps is a 2.6 million strong paramilitary organisation with its own military force and well-armed militias. The Corps is structured like a field army with fourteen divisions dotted around the province and are often stationed along strategic lines of communications as well as border areas.

At the same time the Corps is also one of the largest producers of cotton and tomato paste in the world thanks to its large mechanized farms. It has nearly a dozen listed companies as well. It enjoys a privileged status in the eyes of Beijing leadership.

Why are we talking about China’s own version of East India Company? Because it is crucial to understand Beijing’s strategy to tame the restive Muslim province that has been rocked by a string of deadly terrorist attacks.

A bit of history helps us to understand the importance of the Corps and why it was established more than half a century ago when the Communists took over this far-flung province. When Mao’s soldiers marched into Xinjiang, the place was in a state of civil war between the Chinese nationalist army and Soviet-backed East Turkestan army.

Chinese leaders decided at the time the best strategy to bring the restive province into the country’s power orbit was to settle hundreds of thousands of battle-hardened veterans in Xinjiang.  At that time  Han Chinese only constituted a small minority of the province’s total population.

For people who are familiar with Roman history, it is a time-honoured practice of empire builders to settle veterans and their families on the frontier. Indeed, Chinese emperors also established military farming colonies in Xinjiang to consolidate their imperial authority with varying degrees of success.

Stripped to its bare minimum, it is a strategy of turning the province Chinese or, as one American scholar puts it, the Sinification of Chinese East Turkestan.  This policy can only be described as being hugely successful; the proportion of Han Chinese has increased from a small percent age to more than 40 per cent of the population.

Inevitably, it has been widely accused as a neo-colonial instrument of subjection and a source of tension between Chinese settlers and the local Uyghur population.  Think of them as English and Scottish protestant settlers in Northern Ireland and you get a picture of the type of tension that exists between the two ethnic groups.

During the Cold War, the Corps also acted as a strategic reserve force against a potential Soviet incursion. In the 1960s, Beijing settled between 60,000 and 70,000 veterans including elite paratroopers in Xinjiang to bolster its military presence according to my own archival research -- the results of which have been published in The Journal of Chinese Military History

In much of the commentary around Xinjiang, the crucial role of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is often overlooked.  When Xi Jinping was visiting his far-flung imperial province last month, he made it clear that the Corp’s paramilitary function “must be strengthened and not diminished”.  In the future, we can only expect more resources to be given to the Corp’s militias to bolster their presence throughout the province.

One of China’s top government advisors on Xinjiang has argued persistently for Beijing to expand the Corps in southern Xinjiang, the Uyghur heartland where the Chinese presence is at its weakest.  It is possible that Beijing will establish more Han Chinese dominated divisions in southern Xinjiang to consolidate its control.

As Beijing vows to crack down on terrorism and the independence movement in Xinjiang, expect the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, the country’s own East India Company, to play an ever larger role as it continues to serve as a conduit of Han Chinese settlement.