Zhuo Bingzhe vividly remembers how he joined the People's Liberation Army in his hometown in Northwest China's Shanxi province 65 years ago, and moved to the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region as a soldier. He also clearly remembers the day he was ordered to put down his gun and pick up a hoe to become a member of Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, or XPCC, founded 60 years ago.
The 81-year-old, who still speaks with a heavy Shanxi accent, was just one of the 100,000-plus PLA soldiers who formed the Corps, which is also known as the Bingtuan. In October 1954, the central government decided to demobilize the troops in Xinjiang and set up arable and stock farms in the harsh environments of the Gobi Desert and the region's border areas.
"One day, we were told to join the Corps, and that was that. As a soldier I simply followed orders. I wasn't afraid of the harsh environment at all. The only worry I had was where I would find a wife because there were only men in the regiments and we were in the middle of nowhere," Zhuo said, with a laugh.
By the end of 2013, the Corps had 14 divisions and 176 regiments, and its 2.7 members accounted for nearly 12 per cent of Xinjiang's total population.
However, Zhuo knew from day one that he wasn't just an ordinary farmer. As a member of the XPCC, he needed to be ready to be a part of a special force that would fight when the country needed them, either to defend the borders, or, more recently, to combat terrorism.
In 1962, some local residents in northern Xinjiang's Ili and Tacheng areas crossed the border illegally, leaving their homes forever. The XPCC dispatched more than 17,000 officials and workers to the areas to maintain social order and tend the farmland and livestock of those that had left. The Corps also quickly set up a belt of regimental farms along more than 2,000 km of the border area.
Since the 1980s, the threats to Xinjiang's social stability presented by separatism, religious extremism and terrorism have grown. To confront the threats, emergency militia battalions have been established in the Corps that can respond rapidly to terrorist activities, according to a white paper on the XPCC's history and development issued by the State Council Information Office on Oct 6.
Chen Jiazhu, the Corps' deputy commander, said: "The XPCC is not an army, but it certainly has the power to maintain social stability. Normally, everyone performs different production tasks. When we are required for missions, we must be ready. The Corps aims to become a top militia force in China and stabilize Xinjiang.
"Actually, we can achieve what the army cannot, which is to stay permanently in Xinjiang and build it as our home," he said with a proud smile, as he sat in a museum in Shihezi city, about 150 km west of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. The museum houses a vast collection of items, such as the hoes that Zhuo once used, and showcases how the members of the Corps gradually built the city, which was once the headquarters of the Corps before it was moved to Urumqi.
In 1998, the XPCC was given bureaucratic status equal to that of Xinjiang's regional government. The unique, specialised paramilitary force now covers an area of 70,600 square km, and handles its own administrative and judicial affairs under army-like divisions and regiments.
The county-level city of Shihezi is now under the administration of the Bingtuan's Eight Division. Since the XPCC started its urbanization process, six other cities have been established, and there are more to come as the Corps' role has changed from cultivation and border defence to building cities and maintaining social stability.
The XPCC plans to build four cities in the south of Xinjiang by 2020, and a dozen more around the region in the future. The central government believes urbanization is the key to boosting social development to promote regional stability.
"At the beginning, we thought that even building a garden in Shihezi was a fantasy. Now we have a city," said Zhuo, who has been based in a regiment near the city for more than 30 years, helping to cultivate the Gobi Desert from scratch.
During the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), the XPCC suffered serious disruption in fulfilling its mission, and was dissolved in March 1975. "Those were Bingtuan's dark days," Zhuo said. "We lost our authority. Some of the members were forced to move out of Xinjiang because they were excluded by the local people."
After Deng Xiaoping, the newly elected chairman of the Central Military Commission at the time, visited Shihezi in 1981 he decided to restore the XPCC, which he said was crucial to Xinjiang's stability.
The current central government also expects the Bingtuan to play an important and irreplaceable strategic role in the fight against separatism, extremism and terrorism in Xinjiang in the future.
When he toured Xinjiang in April, President Xi Jinping visited the XPCC's Sixth Division. Xi said more effort is needed to build the Corps into a stabilizing force for the country's border areas, a melting pot where various ethnic groups are integrated, so the XPCC can establish a model region that will showcase advanced productivity and culture.
Zhuo's children and grandchildren have all chosen to stay in the Corp. "I have devoted my life to the Bingtuan, and I am pleased my children decided to do the same so our mission can be passed down from generation to generation. As I said, the Bingtuan is our home now, and there is no other place we'd rather be."