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Chinese Pioneers Being Asked to Relocate -- Once More

They came 50 years ago to settle Xinjiang, a mostly Muslim hinterland. Now, the homes they built are being torn down to make way for development.

October 02, 2005|Ching-Ching Ni | Times Staff Writer

SHIHEZI, China — The eviction notice gave them one week to get out. Residents, many of them retirement age with nowhere else to go, stayed put and tried in vain to stop the demolition crew.

"They hired more than a dozen thugs to tear down the houses while the people were still inside," said He Mulan, 63, one of the holdouts in the clash last summer. "One man had his ribs broken trying to protect his mother."

Housing relocations have become a major source of social tension in China. Ordinary Chinese are familiar with the futility of resisting the wrecking ball, be it at historic courtyards in Beijing or riverside villages near the massive Three Gorges Dam.

The Shihezi eviction didn't involve a cultural landmark or natural wonder. In fact, the homes were no more than rundown brick row houses without indoor plumbing. But they were built by pioneers in China's wild west -- Communist heroes dispatched 50 years ago to live and work in Xinjiang, a sensitive borderland in the far northwest with a predominantly Muslim population.

To the ethnic Han Chinese who made the long journey, it was a one-way trip away from civilization. Proud to help their country, they came anyway, as soldiers, as brides and as families.

What they never expected was that decades after they relinquished their old lives to serve China in the paramilitary organization known as the Bingtuan, they would fall victim to the country's development frenzy.

What angers the older residents most is that they built these homes on their own more than 30 years ago. They did not ask the government for money to construct them, instead paying for everything themselves.

"During the day we worked at the machine factory. At night and during our spare time, we built these homes with our bare hands," said He, 63. "I was pregnant with my son. I moved rocks on my knees."

Across China, the Bingtuans were like a country within a country. They had their own schools, hospitals, courts and troops. They ran farms and factories and, in Xinjiang's case, labor camps and prisons as well. In Xinjiang, the Bingtuan is about 2 million strong.

The Bingtuans were also a relic of China's planned economy. Many enterprises never made much money, and the operations were subsidized by the central government.

In the late 1970s, China dismantled Bingtuans from Tibet in the west to Hainan in the south. But the Bingtuan here remained. Beijing considered it too important a stabilizing force in an often restive region beset by ethnic tensions, said Nicolas Becquelin, a Xinjiang expert at Human Rights in China who is based in Hong Kong.

Today, the challenge for the central government is how to turn the Bingtuan into a profitable corporation.

But the process of reform is never without casualties.

Among the people losing their homes are workers at the No. 4 Machine Factory in Shihezi, which went bankrupt in 2001. The land was sold to a developer to build more lucrative apartment buildings. "We were not given a penny in compensation. They never even talked about it," said Ma Huimin, a retired teacher at the factory's middle school. "Our job is to behave like soldiers and follow orders."

Ma was born the same year as Communist China, in 1949. She was just 2 when her father gathered the family and left cosmopolitan Shanghai for the hinterlands.

The journey, a 20th century version of the wagon trains to America's West, took them almost three months. They traveled mostly on military trucks under the cover of night. To ward off bandits on the road, they huddled around propped-up machine guns. Crying babies were instantly hushed by the thrust of a nipple or blanket.

What finally greeted them was virgin territory as far as the eye could see. "This whole place was covered with reed marshes and wild grass," Ma said.

For shelter, they dug holes in the ground, where they fell asleep to the howling of wolves. "My parents had to start a bonfire at the entrance of our cave to prevent wolves from banging against the door," she said.

Eventually, the Bingtuan cleared the marshes and built farms and cities across the frontier. Today, Shihezi, with its wide roads and modern buildings, bears little resemblance to the desert outpost it once was. A highway billboard welcomes visitors to the "Pearl on the Gobi."

Even when it was possible to leave Xinjiang, after years of being forbidden to do so, many of the old-timers chose to stay.

"A lot of people left," said He, who for 10 consecutive years was chosen as a model worker, the country's highest honor for the working masses. "Those who stayed are really faithful to the government and the party. We are truly committed to this place."

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