24 February 2021

Xinjiang Production & Construction Corps: Key Policy Tool from Mao to Now, Under Xi

People of conscience worldwide recoil in horror at the tragic repression continuing across Xinjiang. Policy-makers of conviction, in the Biden Administration and around the world, are weighing options to respond. To help inform these vital efforts, it is important to revisit just how much Chinese Communist Party’s efforts in Xinjiang have been militarized, securitized, and centrally controlled from the start.

The pathbreaking exposé of Xinjiang policy under Xi published in November 2019 by Austin Ramzy and Chris Buckley in The New York Times contains the following reference to a decades-old organization that continues to undergird PRC development and control of the long-repressed region:

“In the 2014 speeches, Mr. Xi had singled out southern Xinjiang as the front line in his fight against religious extremism. Uighurs make up close to 90 percent of the population in the south, compared to just under half in Xinjiang over all, and Mr. Xi set a long-term goal of attracting more Han Chinese settlers.

He and other party leaders ordered a quasi-military organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, to accelerate efforts to settle the area with more Han Chinese, the documents show.

Below, I offer historical background on the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC):

Andrew S. Erickson, “People’s Liberation Army: Military Enterprises and Industry Since 1949,” in David Pong, ed., Encyclopedia of Modern China, Vol. 3 (New York: Scribner, 2009), 112-15.

Click here to read my three other entries in the encyclopedia and access additional information on the volume.

This entry addresses the economic functions of the military in the civilian economy, including the establishment of non-armaments industries, state farms and services from the 1950s, and the specific issues arising from these during the reform period, as well as the transfer of PLA’s economic interests to civilian management in the 1980s-90s.

The economic activity of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can be divided into four eras, as Thomas Bickford (1994) notes. From 1927 to 1949, the PLA’s economic activity supported the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politically, sustained base areas, and provided military logistical support. From 1949 to 1978, it supported Mao Zedong’s goals of rendering China self-sufficient through labor-intensive light industrialization, agricultural collectivization, and military production. From 1978 to 1998, the PLA’s economic activity helped fund the PLA itself amid declining defense budgets—at the expense of corruption and diversion. Since 1998, PLA commercialism has been severely restricted, professionalism has increased, and the PLA’s overall role in China’s economy has declined to its lowest level ever. …


The CCP established its first “bases,” the Jiangxi Soviet, in a weakly controlled interprovincial border region. A rapidly expanding and diversifying system of farming and production of munitions as well as other necessities supplied the PLA and minimized its material dependence on local peasants, whose loyalty the CCP was trying to court (e.g., by helping peasants harvest crops). After the CCP established the Yan’an Base Area in 1937, small PLA factories (many captured, some of the equipment hauled on the Long March) provided a range of goods, while soldiers (e.g., Wang Zhen’s 359th Brigade) cultivated wasteland. By the time of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, military enterprises had become firmly entrenched as the CCP’s “economic vanguard.”


While Mao approved the establishment of a civilian-controlled armaments industry, he preserved and nurtured PLA production as an essential component of his ideology, and on December 5, 1949, he directed the PLA to engage in major production starting in spring 1950. The PLA played a major role in China’s economy and infrastructure development, with an initial 340,000 troops dedicated full-time to agricultural construction divisions, forestry construction divisions, aquaculture, animal husbandry, and mines. In addition, three principal organizations were formed to conduct economic construction activities. …

The Xinjiang Production Construction Corps (XPCC) was founded by former PLA corps commander, commissar, and first party secretary Wang Zhen under Mao’s orders on October 9, 1954. This was part of a larger process of emulating China’s Han-era “agricultural garrisons” and Qing-era “military colonies” in establishing “construction corps” to settle, render agriculturally self-sufficient, and develop economically remote regions (e.g., Heilongjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Xinjiang) while engaging in border defense and preparing to resist potential invaders. The XPCC’s initial force of 175,000 military personnel, commanded by Tao Zhiyue, was drawn from the First Field Army’s Second and Sixth Corps, former Guomindang soldiers, and former military forces of the interwar East Turkestan Republic (Ili National Army), and was subsequently augmented with young civilians. By 1956, the XPCC’s 300,000 troops were under the control of the new State Farms and Land Reclamation Ministry. In the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the XPCC supported frontline forces and furnished reserves. Following the 1962 Yining riots, in which thousands of Kazakhs and Uygurs fled to the Soviet Union, XPCC’s force rose to 1.48 million. Following Xinjiang leader Wang Enmao’s dismissal in 1968 on charges for having used the XPCC as his own regional army, the corps assumed a greater economic role and was stripped of its military designation and absorbed by Xinjiang’s provincial government in 1975. Deng Xiaoping restored the XPCC’s military role in 1981 amid fears of economic stagnation, Soviet aggression, Islamic fundamentalism, and ethnic separatism. …


Deng Xiaoping’s post-1978 reforms brought needed technology transfer, foreign direct investment, and export markets. During the Sixth Five-Year Plan (1980–1985), defense was prioritized as the “fourth modernization,” but personnel were reduced and armaments spending declined in relative terms (from 17.5% to 10.4% of the national budget) so that resources could be focused on developing the civilian economy. As part of a major restructuring and personnel reduction, first formally discussed by the Central Military Commission in 1981 and organized by a General Logistics Department Leading Small Group established in 1982, several large organizations with largely nonmilitary, commercial functions were at least partially removed from PLA ground-force command. This move was supported by the PLA itself, whose leadership viewed the sprawling nonmartial responsibilities as impediments to professionalization.

From 1982 to 1983, the three principal economic construction organizations were transferred to civilian authority. In September 1982, the Railway Construction Corps was directly transferred to the Railway Ministry. The Capital Construction Corps, and many of its previous responsibilities, were transferred to ministries and local governments in 1983. Some of its forces (e.g., those involved in gold-mine, forestry, transportation, and hydrological work) were transferred to the People’s Armed Police, which was established in April 1983. The XPCC was moved to the joint jurisdiction of the PRC central government and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; the Wulumuqi (Ürümqi) Military Region assumed the military aspects of its duties in 1982 (after 1985, this became the Xinjiang [provincial] Military District of the Lanzhou Military Region). As a paramilitary organization, the XPCC currently employs reservists and roughly 100,000 militia and cooperates closely with People’s Armed Police forces (e.g., in border defense) in addition to playing a policing function and running prisons and labor camps. …


At an enlarged Central Military Commission session on July 22, 1998, Jiang Zemin ordered the PLA to divest itself from a majority of its civilian businesses (over 6,000) in conjunction with the downsizing of 500,000 personnel. The sensitive decision had already been made in May 1997, buttressed by a PLA leadership that favored professionalism, was tired of corruption investigations, and had been promised substantial compensation. The PLA managed to retain control of its guesthouses, some military hospitals (which earn revenue by serving civilian patients), some strategic telecommunications companies, and considerable real estate—the last under the operation of management companies, which return revenue to PLA units. Some agricultural sideline production and factories employing military dependents were retained, particularly in remote areas.

To facilitate foreign commercial relations, even XPCC units have been restructured along corporate lines, adopted a variety of civilian names (e.g., Xinjiang State Farm Organization), and reduced the use of military grades and terminology. Now tasked with both economic development and the prevention of separatism, the XPCC remains Xinjiang’s largest single employer and landowner, with 175 farms, 4,390 large and small enterprises, and one-third each of the province’s Han and arable land under its jurisdiction. In this sense, it is China’s last “Maoist” organization, combining paramilitary and diverse civil economic roles. … … …