Migrants to China's West Bask in Prosperity

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They marched through the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and countless small towns propelled by patriotic cheers and thumping drums. It was 1956, and Mao Zedong was calling on China’s youth to “open up the west,” the vast borderland known as Xinjiang that for centuries had defied subjugation.

After a monthlong journey by train and open-air truck, thousands arrived at this Gobi Desert army outpost to find that the factory jobs, hot baths and telephones in every house were nothing but empty promises to lure them to a faraway land.

“We lived in holes in the ground, and all we did night and day was hard labor,” recalled Han Zuxue, a sun-creased 72-year-old who was a teenager when he left his home in eastern Henan Province. “At first we cried every day but over time we forgot our sadness.”

More than five decades of toil later, men and women like Mr. Han have helped transform Shihezi into a tree-shaded, bustling oasis whose canned tomatoes, fiery grain alcohol and enormous cotton yields are famous throughout China.

This city of 650,000 is a showcase of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a uniquely Chinese conglomerate of farms and factories that were created by decommissioned Red Army soldiers at the end of the civil war.

“Put your weapons aside and pick up the tools of construction,” one popular slogan went. “Develop Xinjiang, defend the nation’s borders and protect social stability.”

With a total population of 2.6 million, 95 percent of it ethnic Han Chinese, Shihezi and a string of other settlements created by the military are stable strongholds in a region whose majority non-Han populace has often been unhappy under Beijing’s rule. Last month, that discontent showed itself during vicious ethnic rioting that claimed 197 lives in Urumqi, the regional capital, which is a two-hour drive away...

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