Wang Lequan , the 'emperor' of Xinjiang , holds three posts - membership of the Politburo, party chief of Xinjiang and senior political commissar of a 55-year-old organisation of paramilitary settlers. With its 2.6 million members, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps is the single most important instrument of state control in Xinjiang. In Putonghua, it is known as bingtuan (literally 'army group'), which more accurately describes the 'BT' than the bland English name. It was founded in 1954 by Mao Zedong , who ordered the soldiers who had conquered the region for the new Chinese government to remain and farm the land. He gave it the mission to develop the region's backward economy and prevent independence, and appointed as commander Wang Zhen . Wang was a national political and military leader for the next 40 years. The BT began with 175,000 soldiers. Today, its 2.6 million members make up one-seventh of Xinjiang's population. They produce 20 per cent of its grain, 40 per cent of its cotton, and 33 per cent of its sugar, along with cotton yarn and cloth. They breed enormous herds of cattle, sheep, horses and camels, and mine coal, copper and other minerals. They operate more than 1,200 companies, of which a dozen are listed on the stock market. They are one of the world's biggest producers of tomato paste, with annual sales of more than 4 billion yuan (HK$4.54 billion), mostly for export, and operate 60 travel agencies. The BT's planned gross domestic product next year is 65 billion yuan, with imports and exports of US$7.1 billion and an average individual income of 7,500 yuan. It controls an area of 74,000 square kilometres and five cities, with its own schools, universities, hospitals, courts, police, newspapers, television stations and websites. Not subject to the regional government, it reports directly to Beijing and sends its own teams to national sports events. Its headquarters is in Urumqi , the regional capital. It has established new cities, including Kuitun in 1975 and Shihezi in 1976, which has become the second-largest city in Xinjiang. It has its own armed police and citizen's militia, whose mission is to 'support the stability of Xinjiang'. 'Comrade Wang Zhen gave us a mission - hold a weapon in one hand to defend the borders of the motherland and a tool in the other to develop production,' BT commander Hua Shifei told a celebration to mark the 100th anniversary of Wang's birth. At his request, Wang's ashes were scattered over the Tianshan mountains north of Urumqi after his death in March 1993. 'The BT adheres to the principle of attaching equal importance to production and militia duties,' a government white paper on the corps says. 'In frontier areas, it has played an irreplaceable role in the past five decades in smashing and resisting internal and external separatists' attempts at sabotage and infiltration and in maintaining the stability and safety of the borders of the motherland.' The new cities, factories and farms established by the BT have attracted thousands of Han people from the rest of China to settle in Xinjiang. Of its 21.3 million people, Han now account for 40 per cent, or 8.5 million, against 9.77 million Uygurs. In 1949, Uygurs accounted for 75 per cent, Han 6 per cent. Of the BT's members, more than 87 per cent are Han. The BT has succeeded beyond Wang's wildest dreams; he is regarded as a hero by Han people. But even today, Uygurs call him 'a butcher'. For many of them, China's civil war presented a historic opportunity to claim their independence; Wang suppressed this ruthlessly. For each People's Liberation Army soldier killed, he ordered the execution of five Uygur men in the village where the killing occurred. Like the pioneers of Israel, Wang's soldier-settlers built irrigation channels and walls of trees to protect their settlements from the desert and the enemy and grew crops. They built roads, telephone lines and factories and created new cities. In 1962, just after the Sino-Soviet split, 60,000 minority people fled to the Soviet Union; Beijing feared a war. BT members took over the farms of those who had fled and set up 58 new farms along a 2,000 kilometre stretch of the border. The BT advocates a similar settlement policy for southern Xinjiang, where Uygurs still outnumber Han and support for an independent state is strongest. 'There are only five districts where Uygurs still account for more than 50 per cent of the population,' it said in a research paper in August 2003. 'Of these, Kashgar and Hetian (Hotan) are hotbeds of East Turkestan terrorism. 'We should consider the Israeli model and encourage mass migration of Han to these areas, in land that is unoccupied. We should use water resources to improve economic development and the living standards of Uygurs, to restrict the space for terrorism.' It proposed the sinicisation of the Uygur population, with the extermination of the Uygur language as a first step. 'Preserving Putonghua as the dominant language is weakening the influence of Uygur. As the economy and exchanges with the rest of China develop, Putonghua will exert its dominant role in the economy. We should give scholarships to Uygur students to study Putonghua.' It said the only hope of Uygur independence would come as a result of conflict in the rest of China. 'This could happen if China became democratic, the authority of the central government was severely weakened and the country fell into internal conflict. Then Western countries, led by the United States, would support the separatist forces by all means possible, crying about self-determination and universal voting, and would send UN peacekeeping forces until Xinjiang was independent.' Beijing has followed many of the BT's policy recommendations. They include moving jobless Uygurs to eastern factories - 1.5 million have gone in the past decade. That distances them as possible recruits for Islamic fundamentalists, gives them more cash to send home and puts them in a Han setting, increasing integration. One of the few mainland intellectuals to publicly challenge the BT is Wang Lixiong , author of My Land of the West, Your East Turkestan, published in Taiwan in 2007. In 1999, he was arrested in Xinjiang and detained for 42 days by Ministry of State Security agents. 'The control of the party over Xinjiang leads to apparent stability but is every day losing the hearts of the local people. If current policies are not changed, Xinjiang could become the next Middle East or Chechnya,' he has said on his blog. In an interview in the latest issue of Chinese-language Asiaweek, he said: 'The main reason for the violence in Urumqi is the failure of the government's minority policies. Many Uygurs believe they are in a colony. An enormous quantity of Xinjiang's resources, such as oil, coal and minerals, is being shipped to the rest of China and they have no benefit. There is large-scale migration of Han people. 'The economy is developing and there is heavy investment, but the local minority people do not feel they are profiting from this.' He said Tibet was different from Xinjiang: Han people did not want to settle in Tibet, except in the major cities and tourist centres, because of the high altitude. 'But in Xinjiang, the bingtuan has taken root in the villages and is face to face with local people. All farming in Xinjiang depends on irrigation. If you develop the land upstream, how can the people downstream not be affected? It makes their oases shrink and covers their farmland with sand. This leads to anger and hatred.' For Han Chinese, the bingtuan is a symbol of their success in making the deserts of Xinjiang bloom and binding it to the rest of China. To many Uygurs, it is a symbol of military control and domination by the Han conqueror.