The practice of stationing garrison troops to cultivate and guard border areas is a tradition of China's history in developing and safeguarding its frontiers. The Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), which was established in 1954, has since made strenuous efforts to fulfill the responsibilities of cultivating and guarding the border areas. XPCC workers have reclaimed ecological oases from the desolate Gobi desert, initiated Xinjiang's modernization, built large-scale agriculture and industrial and mining enterprises, and established new cities and towns through joining hands with residents of all ethnic groups. The corps has contributed greatly to Xinjiang's development by promoting unity among ethnic groups, maintaining social stability and strengthening national border defense.By the end of 2019, the corps had 14 divisions with an area of 70,000 square kilometers under its administration. It contributed a total GDP of 274.707 billion yuan ($40.46 billion).
Solitary patroller Wei Deyou and his wife stand in front of their old house in Yumin county, Tacheng Prefecture, Xinjiang. Photo: Cao Siqi/GT
On the border area between China and Kazakhstan, the story about a retired PLA solider who spent five decades as a solitary patroller has been circulating among residents for years. His story recently garnered attention online after he was rated as a celebrity that touched Chinese netizens' hearts in 2017.
Wei Deyou, the 80-year-old man from East China's Shandong Province, has been guarding of the "no man's island" along the border in Northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region since 1964. He was retired from the ninth division from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. Dubbed as the "live map" in borderline, Wei has been patrolling for nearly 200,000 kilometers, which is equivalent to surrounding the equator five times. In his patrolling life, he has intercepted thousands of animals who tried to cross the border and persuaded more than 1,000 people to return.
On September 13, after hours of driving along the wide Sarbulak grassland, the Global Times reporter met Wei. Basking in the sunset, Wei still looked spry. In front of his old house, the Five-Starred Red Flag was flying in the wind. Although the ninth division has built a new house for him and his wife nearby, they still preferred living in their old house.
Every morning along with the sunrise, Wei starts his day on the border. "Every day I would raise the national flag. The only thing in my life is to safeguard the border for our motherland. That's my belief," Wei told the Global Times.
The Sarbulak grassland is a part of the Gobi desert, which lacks actual grass due to severe salinization. But it is this desolate "grassland" that has served as the scene of stories about protecting and guarding the border. Wei's persistence and sense of responsibility is just a microcosm of millions of soldiers who have been fighting in the frontline for the stability and peace of Xinjiang as well as the country.
He used to be a signalman in a section of the Beijing military command, and had planned to stay in Beijing after he switched jobs. But in 1962, things changed. Instigated and lured by foreign hostile forces, thousands of residents living in border areas such as Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture, Tacheng, Altay prefectures in Xinjiang fled to the Soviet Union. For a time, the towns in the border areas were deserted, idyllic and desolate, and county and township governments were paralyzed. In 1964, the 24-year-old Wei arrived in Tacheng and became a "new soldier" in ninth division.
Border incidents occurred frequently in 1969. "I passed the Soviet Union soldiers from time to time and could even smell the gunpowder," Wei recalled from his days of patrolling.
A lot of people had asked him and his wife why they still live such a hard life in the wilderness. "Patrolling border has become my mission of life. If I stopped for one day, I would not sleep well. Once what happened in the border areas, my life duty would be ruined," Wei said.
"He is so stubborn. Once he made his mind, he would not change," Liu Jinghao, Wei's wife, told the Global Times. For the past 50 years, Liu has accompanied Wei through many hardships.
To commemorate a female soldier who died in a border clash in 1969, the ninth division established a female solder class in 1992. The class is the one in the country teaching cultivation and protection of the border through military management.
Together with border officers and soldiers, students reinforce the barbed wire, inspect livestock and check the border monument.
"Stand at attention. Salute," said the female soldiers during morning exercise.