News of military unrest has come this past week from Chinese-occupied East Turkestan, the 636,000-square-mile territory on the northwest frontier of the People’s Republic, officially called Xinjiang. According to the Associated Press:
Cotton farmers in China’s far west clashed with police and paramilitary guards over alleged price-fixing by local authorities, leaving 40 people injured, witnesses and Hong Kong media said Friday.
The protesters, however, were no ordinary “farmers.” To begin with, they were not indigenous Turks. Nor were they civilians. They were members of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which is to say, Chinese soldiers and their families, descended from the original occupation troops sent to colonize the territory in 1954, today numbering over two million, and still having military organization. According to reports, the units involved were the 127 and 123 brigades of the Seventh Division of the corps.
Since at least the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Chinese rulers have settled soldiers on frontiers and in occupied territories in tuntian or “agricultural military colonies.” The idea has always been that the men and families so settled would support themselves by farming, while being available to fight attackers or local inhabitants, if required. The Seventh Division’s farms extend over a politically-charged area near what used to be the border with the USSR, now with Kazakhstan, where the Ili river flows out of the People’s Republic though mountains to Lake Balkhash.
It seems the soldiers originally sent to secure the region, who now are settled in paramilitary formations, are rioting against the exactions of the currently active Chinese Army there. The Army has set the price at which it buys the cotton raised by the soldiers near or below the cost of production. On September 22 and 23, according to incomplete reports in the South China Morning Post, military farmers responded to nighttime army searches for hidden cotton in their homes by turning out en masse to destroy the local headquarters of the Chinese Army cotton purchasing and policing units. The protesters reportedly numbered about five thousand.
This story is of particular importance because the conflict it reports is not between Turks and Chinese in occupied East Turkestan (these are common), but between the descendants of the first wave of Chinese occupiers and the current Chinese military authorities. How will the army respond if called upon to repress its own? This question must be a headache for Beijing.
More broadly, these developments lend support to two predictions about the future of the People’s Republic of China. The first is that its terminal troubles will begin internally, as this army versus army conflict suggests. The second is that the problems will begin not on China’s highly developed east coast, but rather in its vast and ragged far western border region, where lie the profoundly alien and uncongenial (to Chinese people) occupied territories of Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and East Turkestan.