Business (Not) As Usual: The Case of the Uyghur Merchants

A relay station in Ghulja, 1910. From the G.E. Morrison collection. Source.

Thus far, we have looked at the impact of the March Revolution on inter-state diplomacy and administration, focusing on the shifting constellations of power in Petrograd and the cities of the frontier. Another important facet of Sino-Russian relations, however, was trade. In Inner Asia and the Far East in particular, trade between Russia and China was an important facet of the local economy.

Official documents do not always fully capture the dynamics of cross-border commerce. Nevertheless, trade negotiations were critical to governmental and regional diplomacy, with merchants petitioning ministries, ambassadors and local officials to iron out customs disputes, negotiate favourable terms or complain about economic policies. After March, both Russia and China attempted to minimise disruptions to trade and continue with business as usual. Given Russia’s political upheavals, however, this was not always possible. The following letter from Xinjiang governor Yang Zengxin – re-paragraphed in the English translation – involves a typical merchant appeal for official intervention and illustrates the difficulties in navigating post-revolutionary bureaucracy.




According to the Chuguchak circuit intendant:

“On 8 March of this year, Qi Lan, a member of the foreign affairs bureau, wrote that on 7 March he was informed by the Russian consul of a message received from the Russian customs checkpoint at Weitangzi [Koktuma] on 17 Feburary. The message stated that a telegram had been received from the Russian customs headquarters in Semirech’e, instructing that the export of Russian metal implements and various types of cloth to China was to be prohibited. This was duly conveyed to the Russian consul, and he requested that the chief of the foreign affairs bureau implement this.

“On 11 January this year, the Russian customs checkpoint at Weitangzi had previously confiscated cloth and sundry goods etc, worth 656,700 rubles, which had been purchased in Russia for export by Uyghur merchants from China. This had been reported to the consular attache, with a request for the Russian consul to instruct the checkpoint to swiftly release the goods on the basis of [trade] treaties. Furthermore, the chief of the foreign affairs bureau repeatedly met with the consul, asking him to convey this request, but ultimately no reply was received. Hence there was no alternative but to cease issuing permits to the Russian company Da Li1 for the shipment of cloth and other items from Chuguchak to Xinjiang, as a countermeasure [emphasis mine – ed.].

“Having read the message [from the Russian consul], it is not clearly stated if it is a response to the earlier incident and naturally, we cannot acknowledge this latest prohibition. As for when the Russian customs checkpoint received the prohibitory telegram, why did they not notify us before the incident? Moreover, in the text of the prohibition of various cloth exports to China, it is not clearly stated that Russian merchants are allowed to do so as an exception. How could the Russian Da Li company be permitted to ship goods to Xinjiang more than a month after the Chinese Uyghur merchants’ goods were confiscated? It appears that these incidents are in fact intentional treaty violations. As for how negotiations should proceed, further instructions were sought [by the foreign affairs bureau].

“The bureau has previously reported on this matter to my office, namely that the Chinese merchants Chong ahong [akhund, a Muslim cleric] etc had purchased more than 650,000 rubles’ worth of goods in Russia and were returning to China when these were confiscated without reason by Russian customs. The Russian consul was informed to instruct the customs checkpoint to release the goods, and it was necessary to wait for a response before drawing up countermeasures. Hence this was not conveyed earlier, and it was not anticipated that, until now, no official reply would be received for such a long time. The incidents related by the bureau are all verifiable. As for whether the [Foreign] Ministry should be informed in order to carry out negotiations, or if similar measures should be implemented first so that Chinese merchants will not be the only ones taking losses, I seek consideration and instructions from the governor.”

I have instructed thus: “Noted. If local Russian officials have not revised Sino-Russian trade treaties to include an article prohibiting Chinese merchants from exporting Russian goods, they cannot confiscate Russian products shipped by Chinese traders. The Foreign Ministry should be informed to negotiate once more with the Russian ambassador. Such treaty-violating actions are clearly due to the disorder in Russia, which has led to this, and I suppose that our country need not follow their bad example [emphasis mine – ed.]. Continue to wait for the Ministry’s negotiations. They will have an equitable solution. For your implementation.” This report is drafted for the Ministry’s reference in order to swiftly negotiate with the Russian ambassador, such that Chong ahong’s goods may be released. Thank you for your support.

Letter from Yang Zengxin, 2 June 1917 (sent 18 April). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 107-108.
The Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, 1910. From the G.E. Morrison collection. Source.

The circuit intendant’s rather convoluted message and Yang’s reply to the same provide a flavour of what a typical merchant petition was like before the March Revolution. Akhund Chong, representing several Uyghur merchants, sought official help in recovering goods detained by a Russian customs checkpoint. Such letters were sent by Chinese merchants, both Han and non-Han, across Xinjiang, Manchuria, the Russian Far East, Siberia and European Russia. Chinese consuls and officials supported these claims by  conducting their own talks or sometimes by taking retaliatory action. In all cases the inviolability of Sino-Russian trade treaties was a critical part of the appeal. If local action failed to achieve the desired result, reports were sent to the Foreign Ministry. The Ministry then conducted further negotiations with the Russian ambassador in Beijing, or instructed the Chinese ambassador in Russia to intercede.

With the handover of power to the Provisional Government, however, these procedures were thrown into disarray. By the time this letter was written, Chong’s shipment had been held up for three months, during which the usual appeals process had taken place: The Foreign Ministry was duly informed, Chinese ambassador Liu Jingren had been instructed to speak with the Russian government, and negotiations with the Russian ambassador in Beijing had yielded an agreement to release the goods. But what must have been an already cumbersome tsarist bureaucracy was rendered even worse by post-revolutionary political instability. Instructions from Petrograd or the Russian ambassador were not reaching an obscure, Inner-Asian customs checkpoint. To make matters worse, the Provisional Government had introduced trade controls to shore up Russia’s hard currency reserves and supplies of essential goods. Such new directives were not properly communicated or implemented.

Chong’s goods were finally returned in June and July 1917. As Yang himself was aware, however, normal diplomatic procedures for the resolution of trade disputes were no longer reliable in Russia’s post-March environment. In this case he was keen to take the high ground: China should not resort to the arbitrary behaviour displayed by the Russians. Yet as further trade altercations began to occur in summer and autumn 1917, the Xinjiang authorities adopted a tougher stance in withholding permits from Russian merchants. Yang’s sensitivity to the conditions in Russia also did not preclude more wide-ranging opportunism in the realm of trade. Going forward, he would use the Civil War years to revise China’s commercial treaties with Russia, abolishing the tax-exempt status of Russian merchants in the border zone and indirectly encouraging frontier traders to take up Chinese citizenship instead. Under the guise of setting up trade bureaux, he would establish a foothold for Chinese consulates in Russian Central Asia, which had previously been prohibited by the tsarist authorities. Even a far-flung customs outpost on the Silk Road was not immune from the vagaries of revolution.


1. Despite its name, the Da Li company was founded in 1911 as the Dihua (now Urumqi) branch of a large textile business owned by prominent Moscow industrialist and Duma delegate Mikhail Nikiforovich Bardygin. Its parent company had branches throughout the Russian empire. For more on Bardygin’s company, see here. I thank Prof Mark Gamsa from Tel Aviv University for identifying Bardygin as the owner of Da Li.

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