A Refugee Massacre in the Xinjiang Borderlands

A group of Kyrgyz at the grazing-grounds near Uch-Turfan, 1907. From the Mannerheim expedition. Source.

In an earlier post, we examined how the introduction of the draft – coupled with long-standing conflict between Central Asian communities and Russian settlers over land – sparked off a bloody uprising across Central Asia in 1916. Waves of refugees fled into Xinjiang, where they were grudgingly tolerated by the Chinese authorities. The arrival of the Russian Provisional Government seemed to promise an end to the cycle of violence, repression and counter-reprisals. An amnesty was declared, the draft order cancelled, and Xinjiang officials expected a swift return for the refugees.

Nevertheless, the Provisional Government’s official pardon did little to assuage communal tensions that had been inflamed by the uprising. As Chinese officials cajoled or coerced them back into Russian territory, many of the returnees encountered yet more bloodletting. In June 1917, Xinjiang military governor Yang Zengxin protested a massacre of Kyrgyz refugees by Russian troops.




A 9 June telegram from Kashgar circuit intendant Zhu Ruichi reads:

‘According to a telegram from Uch-Turfan magistrate Chen Guangwei, the Russian Kyrgyz Nan Mu and others reported that more than 700 Russian Kyrgyz were returning to their country and had just arrived one stop away from Lake Ala-Kul1 when Russian troops headed them off into a ravine and shot and killed almost all of them. I then questioned the Russian consul, who agreed to send a telegram to his government to look into the matter and would await their reply. I fear that this matter is not one that the Russian consul can resolve. Please inform the State Council and [Foreign] Ministry to make serious representations to the Russian ambassador.’ On the same day a joint telegram from circuit intendant Zhu and Aksu circuit intendant Liu also conveyed the above.

The Russian citizens who fled into Chinese territory had sworn that they would rather die than return. Our country, out of deep concern for diplomatic relations, expended much financial resources [on them] and advised them solicitously. Only after the Russian consul had declared that they would all be received and pardoned did these Russian citizens agree to return to their country. This latest incident is truly inhumane. If those who return suffer a massacre, those yet to return will dig in their heels and go no further. One wonders what their government’s intentions are by first granting them an amnesty to return, then shooting and killing them wholesale. Through such an act, not only will the Russian government forfeit the trust of the border peoples, but it will also cause any future advice from Chinese local officials to lose all credibility. Currently, the  Russian citizens residing in the various localities of Xinjiang are not few. They are all poor, hungry, waiting for death, and if they were make a desperate move, who will bear the responsibility? If the Ministry may promptly question the Russian ambassador, I will await further instructions.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 13 June 1917 (sent 12 June). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 115.

Yang’s indignation, although partially expressed in humanitarian terms, underscored his desire to get Central Asian refugees to leave China quickly. Beijing certainly shared these concerns: Ambassador Liu Jingren was instructed to question the Provisional Government and a meeting with Russian Ambassador N.A. Kudashev was also arranged. The responses were far from satisfactory.


Deputy Minister: Of the Russian Kazakhs [sic] who fled to Xinjiang, some have now returned to Russia successively. It was heard that upon reaching Russian territory many were massacred. Regarding these Kazakh refugees, Chinese local officials have over the past month done their utmost to induce them to return to Russia. Now, if there was indeed a massacre, one fears that the Kazakh refugees will all dig in their heels from now on. The Ministry has sent a telegram to the Ambassador in Russia on this matter to have a word with Your Government about it.
Kudashev: I have not heard anything about this matter, nor have I received any report from the consul.
Deputy Minister: Those who carried out the massacre are still unknown. Your Excellency could look into this.

Meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian and Russian Ambassador Kudashev, 21 June 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 118-119.


Telegram of the 14th received. On the matter of Russian soldiers shooting and killing Kazakh [sic] refugees, I have spoken to the [Russian] Foreign Ministry, which said that it had heard nothing about anything to do with the shooting. [They said that] it could be because the Kazakh refugees did not wish to return to their country and hence told tales to frighten others; however, before the Kazakh masses fled, they used their numbers to rape and plunder with great brutality, and the local people harbour deep hatred [emphasis mine – ed.]. Now that they are returning, it is hard to avoid instances of revenge. An investigation is forthcoming.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 2 July 1917 (sent 26 June). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 120.
Russian soldiers on the Kazakh steppes, 1916. Source.

The replies revealed an inability to control the situation in the Central Asian borderlands. Despite its best intentions, the Provisional Government was as “frozen” in Central Asia as it was in other parts of Russia: Questions of political legitimacy, local autonomy and land allocation were deferred until the Constituent Assembly; institutions of governance were absent or disorganised; ethnic divisions persisted unabated; even the food supply proved problematic. The region relied on grain from other parts of Russia; in some areas, such as Tashkent, it had dried up as early as April 1917. Crop failures in spring and summer 1917 only exacerbated the issue, while in Semirech’e a breakdown in transport made it difficult to get grain surpluses to the south. Refugees returning from China arrived in the midst of famine.

What was more, the Provisional Government’s reply to Liu stressed the culpability of the Central Asians who participated in the uprisings. Such words betrayed a lingering commitment to certain ideological aspects of the tsarist colonial project: Restive,  numerically superior native populations necessitated Russian vigilance and control. In fact, the post-March Turkestan Committee and local authorities in Semirech’e used hostility between settlers and returnees to justify the latter’s isolation. They maintained that refugees should be prevented from returning altogether or resettled away from the scene of conflict, coincidentally in the inhospitable Naryn region. Settlers who had already been armed by the Russian authorities during the 1916 uprising were given yet more weapons against the returnees. While the Provisional Government and its local organs may not have condoned the outright violence that erupted during the massacre, their alarmist emphasis on revanchism did little to defuse the situation and, at worst, created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

(I am indebted to the work of Dr Aminat Chokobaeva of the University of Sydney for the insights into the cycle of violence and the mobilisation of fear during the Central Asian Uprising of 1916 and its aftermath.)


1. The exact identity of this lake is uncertain. Despite Chen’s sinicisation of the name (Hala hu), it is unlikely that the lake in question is Hala Lake, which is on the Tibetan Plateau and hence not on a route that returnees would have taken. Instead, the lake is probably Ala-Kul in present-day Kyrgyzstan. It lies along the main refugee route from Issyk-Kul and is in a suitably mountainous area near Uch-Turpan (Uqturpan), Kashgar and Aksu.

2 thoughts on “A Refugee Massacre in the Xinjiang Borderlands

  1. Pingback: Revolution and Refugees in Xinjiang – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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