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Xinjiang: From the Opium War to 1950

Muslim rebellion and Russian influence saw increasing Uyghur influence in political institutions

Anders Corr

Anders Corr

Published: March 07, 2019 04:22 AM GMT

Updated: March 08, 2019 06:34 AM GMT

Xinjiang: From the Opium War to 1950

The First East Turkestan Republic is founded in Kashgar in present-day Xinjiang on Nov. 12, 1933. (Photo from Wikipedia)

The Opium War (1839-42) on China’s southeast coast, and subsequent Chinese rebellions, put financial pressure on the Qing. In 1846 and 1857, the Afaqis conducted cross-border raids on Kashgar, but the tripling of Qing troops in the area to 8,000 men, plus additional allied Han Chinese and Tungan (Chinese Muslim) merchants, fended them off.  

By 1853, the Qing had entirely stopped silver payments to their troops and officers in Xinjiang, who were forced to develop their own revenues, for example through setting up a system of forced labor in the copper mines.

But this only increased Muslim anger at the Qing. In Xinjiang’s southern town of Kucha, on the northern rim of the Tarim Basin, Tungans revolted in 1864. A rumor of an impending massacre of Tungans triggered the revolt, which took on the religious nature of a holy war (jihad). The Muslim religion united rebels across ethnic, racial, class and regional identities. Turkic Muslims joined the Chinese Muslim revolt throughout the Tarim and Zungharia, which led to the Qing’s fall in Xinjiang.

Supported by Britain, Islamists conquer Xinjiang

Yakub Beg, a Khoqandi general supported by the British, took advantage of the Qing’s weakness and the jihad to style himself a jihadi and take control of most of Xinjiang in 1870, excluding the eastern oases over which the Qing still had substantial commerce-related influence. Russia occupied east Xinjiang’s Ili Valley in 1871, ostensibly to shield locals and their property from the dangers of Muslim rebellion.

Yakub Beg promoted Islam and Shariah law and, like the dervishes, he lived frugally. His 40,000 troops were led by fellow Khoqandis. To acquire armaments and legitimacy, and to reward supporters, he contracted commercial agreements with Russia and Britain in 1872 and 1874 respectively and acknowledged the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire in 1873. Yakub Beg died in 1877 and his state unravelled.

Yakub Beg’s takeover of Xinjiang was aided by another Muslim rebellion between 1860 and 1872 in China’s northern Gansu corridor, which blocked Qing access to Xinjiang and left millions dead. Zuo Zongtang, a scholar official of the Qing dynasty under the Manchus, routed the Sufi rebels, sought to “civilize” the area and resettled Muslims away from non-Muslims to mitigate the risk of future rebellion, an act of ethnic cleansing.

Russian influence increases

Between 1851 and 1881, Russia signed a series of border and commercial treaties with the Qing, increasing Russian access and influence in Xinjiang.

In the Treaty of St. Petersburg (1881), Russia returned only part of Ili Valley, reserving the rest to resettle Tungans and Taranchis (Muslims from the southern oases) from Ili. Russians gained the right to trade in Xinjiang’s biggest cities, including Urumqi and Kashgar, and to open six consulates, one as far east as Gansu. Between 1898 and 1907, the number of Russian firms expanded from 4 to 30, and the number of Russian merchants expanded from 200 to 800.

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Faced with a Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874, China almost gave up Xinjiang in favor of more naval power, but Zuo convinced the emperor to back his plan to retake the northwest, which he did from 1875 to 1877.

Zuo’s successful tactics relied on the old tactic of military colonies in rebellious areas. They resulted in the Treaty of St. Petersburg (1881) in which Russia returned border passes to China that had been occupied during the Muslim rebellions. In 1882, Russia ceded Ili Valley to the Qing, and most of the Muslim inhabitants moved to a nearby Russian province.

The social result of Zuo’s tactics of resettlement in Gansu and Shaanxi after 1872, according to Oxford researcher Hannah Theaker, was a revival of the Islamic religion. She writes: “The creation of new areas of dense Muslim settlement created the conditions for a late Qing Islamic revival in eastern Gansu that paralleled currents of Islamic modernism and the turn to textual orthodoxy seen in Central Asian Islam.”

Turkish, Persian and Arabic texts were reproduced, and the local population was pressured by the community to attend mosques.

Qing Sinicization campaign

To push back against Russian territorial and commercial ambitions in the northwest, the Qing sought to Sinicize Xinjiang through colonization, education and, politically in 1884, by turning it into a full province of China.

Thereafter, its mostly Manchu and Mongol military and political leadership were replaced with Han Chinese officials, who promoted the Chinese language and immigration. The powerful families, kings and officials that China had used to rule in Xinjiang were gradually de-emphasized by the state, though 3,300 aristocratic landlords (begs) were retained.

A state Sinicization campaign in 1883 sought to assimilate Muslims by compelling them to attend Confucian schools and read Chinese material translated into the Turkic language. This alienated the population, and the schools atrophied.

The Qing also resettled 50,000 Gansu and Hunan soldiers from the army of reconquest to Xinjiang. But many abandoned their land. The Qing had more success resettling Muslims from populated areas of Xinjiang’s south to Urumqi, the Ili Valley and Tarbagatai in northern Xinjiang on the border with present-day Kazakhstan.

This ironically made Xinjiang even more Turkic than previously. Leaders emerged who saw themselves as part of a pan-Turkic identity and as Islamic secular modernists (Jadidism). Between the 1880s and 1949, these ideologies infused a network of new-style Turkic schools formed by Muslim intellectuals and activists that in part produced modern Uyghur identity. Social and political movements found a base in the schools that fed this pan-Turkic Muslim identity in Central Asia as late as the 1920s.

Prior to defeating the Muslims, Zuo helped defeat the Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion (1850-64), which advocated common property and in which about 20 million died, many massacred by Qing forces.

After defeating the Muslims, Zuo was sent south in 1884 to buttress defensive forces in the war with France. This solidified his place in the pantheon of China’s heroes, defending the country from its Christian, Muslim, Russian and French enemies, internally as well as on China’s northern, western and southern frontiers.

Power struggle intensifies

As Russia’s influence in Xinjiang grew in the late 19th century, the British in India became increasingly worried. Russia did not assuage Britain’s fears, or resolve the Qing’s 1891 territorial claim, when she invaded the mountainous eastern Pamir, between the three powers and Afghanistan.

In response, the British Indian Army invaded the nearby Hunza Kingdom (in today’s extreme north of Pakistan), over which the Qing also claimed suzerainty. The Qing then occupied Sariqol, now Tashkurgan, in eastern Xinjiang. Russia and Britain signed a treaty in 1895 that excluded the Qing. Borders from that treaty still exist today but have not been recognized by the PRC.

That historical dispute could form the basis for future Chinese territorial claims. China’s revanchist historiography could lead it in future, as the power of Russia and Iran are subsumed by China’s growing influence in those alliances, to claim for its own parts of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It has already sought to do the same since the 1960s, including on the basis of falsified history, in Russia, Japan, India and against claimant countries abutting the South China Sea.

After the revolution of 1911, the nationalist republic sought to expand its boundaries further. It penned the 9-dash line onto maps of the South China Sea, and changed the old Turko-Mongolian place names in Xinjiang to Chinese names from 2,000 years prior. The PRC switched them back after 1949, but given current trends in Xinjiang and the South China Sea, one should expect the names to again be Sinicized by Xi Jinping. He, like the Qing and the nationalists, seems to be in an expansionist mood. That was dangerous enough back then, but now with nuclear weapons it is a potentially existential threat.

Soviets support Uyghur identity

The 1911 revolution weakened the Chinese state in Xinjiang, leading to a series of rebellions, coups and independent states. Soviet influence complicated the political situation in Xinjiang, with the Soviets supporting an expanded Uyghur identity.

The Soviet definition of the Xinjiang Uyghurs in 1921 included non-Chinese of Turkic ethnicity. Uyghur identity developed across the border in Russian Semireche, now eastern Kazakhstan, where a mix of pan-Turkism and Islamic reform was developed by Ottoman and Tatar intellectuals. From this environment emerged the new Uyghur identity that combined the former Turkic identities of Altishahris, Kashgaris and cross-border Taranchies. Meanwhile, Stalin’s pressure on his own Turkic elites in the 1920s and 1930s led some to flee to Xinjiang.

Chinese governors at the time nominally controlled Xinjiang in a semi-autonomous manner, untethered by faltering financial support from the Chinese capital, until 1933. As in the 1850s, they replaced central government subsidies with resource extraction. They resisted, to no avail, the new Soviet-supported Uyghur identity.

When the provincial governor removed the Muslim king of Hami, a wave of rebellions and chaos ensued. Kirghiz, Gansu, Kazakh, Mongol and Soviet armies battled the weak Chinese government that ruled from Urumqi. In 1933, the First East Turkestan Republic (FETR) was founded. It had the support of Stalin, Turkic exiles from Russia and Uyghur intellectuals, who embedded within it the idea of Uyghur nationality.

Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai took over the Xinjiang governorship for the nationalists in 1933 and defeated the FETR the following year. But, his allegiance would eventually lay more with the Soviets. Consistent with that alliance, Sheng reversed himself, promoted the Uyghur identity and hired non-Han officials into mid-level positions of the bureaucracy.

At the same time, he tried to increase bureaucratic control in local social systems, including over religious land trusts and stipends for religious personnel. Sheng killed off many of the former elites who might compete with his power, including Uyghurs and Han Chinese.

Sheng thereby alienated both the Soviets and the nationalists, leading to ethnic rebellion and massacres of Han Chinese.

To maintain influence, the Soviets supported the Second East Turkestan Republic (1944-50) in three districts of Xinjiang. The late 1940s, through that support, saw the height of Uyghur influence in political institutions in Xinjiang, as in addition to SETR the overlapping nationalist Chinese government sought to incorporate indigenous officials.

This is the third article in a nine-part series on Xinjiang by Anders Corr, who holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian, including on China and Central Asia.

Tomorrow: Assimilation of China’s Muslims, from Mao to 2012

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