Civil War Refugees in Xinjiang

In Manchuria, the arrival of the November Revolution and Russian Civil War directly endangered border security and the large Chinese diaspora in Russia’s far eastern region. Japan’s growing involvement in the War, now given the diplomatic stamp of approval by the Joint Defence Agreement and the Siberian Intervention, threatened to increase its influence at China’s expense. The presence of Allied forces could counterbalance Japanese ambitions, but their activities on the Chinese Eastern Railway also undermined Chinese attempts to regain control over the Railway concession zone.

The situation in Xinjiang mirrored that of Manchuria. Fighting between Reds and Whites spilled over into the frontier and jeopardised Chinese neutrality. As we shall see, the Japanese also took advantage of the Joint Defence Agreement to make inroads into the province. There was, however, one critical difference: From the beginning, Xinjiang’s experience of the Civil War had an acute humanitarian dimension. As with the 1916 Central Asian Uprising, tens of thousands of refugees once again fled across the mountains to seek shelter in China.

Ataman B.V. Annenkov and his orderlies in Xinjiang, 1920. Annenkov was one of the anti-bolshevik militarists taking refuge in China. Source.




Now, in Ili, the number of fleeing Russians has already reached around 50,000; subsequent arrivals are still coming in endless droves. I secretly instructed defence commissioner Yang to negotiate with the Reds to take these escapees back. They have sworn to die before returning to their country, there is no choice but to settle them temporarily. I am enclosing defence commissioner Yang’s telegram of 5 July and my reply for the Ministry’s approval.

Yang Zengxin (first row, middle) with members of the Sino-Swedish expedition led by Sven Hedin and Xu Xusheng in Xinjiang, 1928. Source.

Telegram from Ili defence commissioner Yang
With the current war between Red and White factions in Russia, the total number of Russians who have fled to Chinese territory to escape the disorder is more than 50,000. Previously, areas in the Khorgas border region around the third and fourth circuit checkpoints and along the Ili River were allocated for their temporary habitation. Then, since the number of people grew too large, troops could not oversee them adequately and the area has seen a shortage of all housing and food. The weather is now extremely hot and many of the escapees have gone on their own to live in the various embankments of Yining County and outside the city gates [of Ghulja], hence the price of grain has risen sharply, which will have a worrying effect on the maintenance of order locally. At the time, although it was proposed to negotiate with members of the Reds, the escapees unanimously said: ‘The Reds are extremely cruel, committing brutal murders at their whim, all homes and property have been burnt or looted. We have no homes to return to and would rather die in China than return to our country.’ I sent representatives to counsel them multiple times, but with no result. Now the Russians do not wish to return, but if they reside in our territory for long, this would also not be a good plan. As for how these escapees should be handled, I seek your instructions. Defence commissioner Yang Feixia. 5 July.

Reply to defence commissioner Yang
Telegram of the 5th received and read. In the war between Russian factions, the homes and property of their citizens have all been burnt and looted. Having fled to our country, they have then said that they would rather die in China and do not wish to return. At this point, no matter how they are driven out, the Russians will absolutely refuse to leave. It will create needless hostility and be of no help. Instead they may be temporarily settled and placed under strict control. Once Russia is somewhat calmer, we may request the Reds to take them back and advise them again to return to their country. Then it will be easier to make headway. At this moment we can only appease and conciliate them according to the circumstances, which is the policy you may adopt. This year’s harvest is still excellent, the food issue will not be greatly affected. Civilian and military governor Yang Zengxin. 10 July.

Letter from Yang Zengxin, 24 August 1918, in Li Nianxuan, Guo Tingyi and Hu Qiuyuan (eds.), Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1983), pp. 102-103.
May Day rally in Zharkent, 1927. Source.

The refugees mentioned in Yang Feixia’s wire first began arriving in May 1918, as Red forces dispatched from Tashkent swept into the border districts of Almaty and Zharkent. Thousands of civilians and White soldiers fled over the Khorgas River into Xinjiang, including not only ethnic Russians but also Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Dungans. Other refugee waves arrived in Tarbagatai, Kashgar and Uqturpan in the summer, but the Ili group seems to have been the most numerous. Chinese officials in the county capital of Ghulja were overwhelmed: It seemed that the dust had only just settled from the Central Asian Uprising when new multitudes arrived to seek shelter in China.

Yang Zengxin’s response – to “appease and conciliate” the refugees by allowing them to settle for the moment – built on his experience of the 1916 crisis. More lands around Lake Sayram were allocated for them, and they were allowed the use of provincial granaries. Local officials were told to negotiate with the Reds to prevent them from entering Chinese territory in pursuit and to extend reciprocal protection to the Chinese diaspora in Semirech’e. Escapee White soldiers would not be extradited to their enemies, but must be disarmed according to international precedent and to remove their military capabilities. Nevertheless, these refugees could not be allowed to remain for long; as with their counterparts from 1916, they should be compelled to return once circumstances in Russia permitted.

Xinjiang’s approach to the Civil War refugee crisis was not a paragon of humanitarian virtue. The problems with housing and provisions mentioned in Yang Feixia’s telegram persisted, and relief efforts were largely organised within the Russian community itself. Neither was the policy towards White military escapees foolproof. Disarmament was not always carried out consistently and, like in Manchuria, anti-bolshevik leaders succeeded in arming and recruiting not only refugees but also local populations. Yet the 50,000 civilians and soldiers in Ili prefigured what would happen in Manchuria towards the end of the Civil War. Then, Manchurian officials would adopt a similar stance to Yang’s, attempting to disarm White soldiers and settle refugee civilians. They, too, would be guided by notions of international precedent in the treatment of refugees, especially refugee combatants. “Appeasing and conciliating” refugees could therefore serve multiple purposes: De-escalating potential border conflicts, preventing retaliatory attacks on the Chinese diaspora, and demonstrating China’s credentials as a “civilised” nation, on par with the Great Powers.

3 thoughts on “Civil War Refugees in Xinjiang

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