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.

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

查現在伊犁逃來俄民約計已達五萬人,續來者尚絡繹不絕,當經密飭楊鎮守使與俄黨人交涉,將此項逃民收回,該逃民誓死不肯回國,只好暫為安置。除將楊鎮守使七月微電及增新覆電二稿一並咨送外,相應咨請鈞部鑒核。

伊犁楊鎮守使來電
查此次俄國新舊兩黨戰爭,因逃難先后逃來中境俄民共計五萬余人。前經指定霍爾果斯邊界三四道卡及伊犁河沿一帶各地暫令居住,嗣以人數太多,軍隊監察難周,且該處房屋糧食在在均屬缺乏。以天正爆熱,各逃民多有私往伊寧縣各圩子暨城關外居住,糧價因之大漲,於地方治安影響堪虞。此間雖與新黨人物提議交涉,然該逃民僉稱:「新黨非常酷虐,肆意慘殺,所有房屋財產悉被燒毀掠奪,無家可歸,寧死中國,不願回國」。署使派員多方勸導,卒無效果。現在俄民不願回國,然長此住居我國境內,亦非善策。究竟該逃民宜如何辦理,應請核示遵行。鎮守使楊飛霞。微。

覆伊犁楊鎮守使電
微電悉。俄國黨派戰爭,伊民房屋財產悉被燒毀掠奪,逃來我國,既有寧死中國,不願回國之語,此際無論如何驅迫,俄民決不肯行,徒生惡感,無濟於事,不如暫行安置,嚴加約束,俟俄境稍靖,一面要求彼黨收回,一面再勸令回國,斯時當易著手,此刻只可隨方撫輯,仰即照辦。本年收成尚豐,食糧一層,當不至大受影響。省長兼督軍楊增新。灰。

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.

yangsven
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.
Uyghur_Ploughmen
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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