A Japanese Team in Xinjiang

In previous posts, we saw how the fateful Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement of May 1918 was activated during the Siberian Intervention. Empowered by the agreement, the Imperial Japanese Army dispatched troops across North Manchuria and the Chinese Eastern Railway. They clashed with Chinese forces, who had only just succeeded in ejecting the Russian railway guard and reviving some degree of Chinese control over the CER zone.

Xinjiang was not directly mentioned in the Defence Agreement. Nevertheless, it was also a target of Japanese imperial ambitions and, in October 1918, a nine-man team arrived in Xinjiang on the pretext of implementing the Agreement. Governor Yang Zengxin sounded a note of alarm:

A Chinese New Year procession in Aqsu. From the Mannerheim expedition, c. 1907. Source.





After the Sino-Japanese secret agreement was settled, Japanese observer Narita Tetsuo and his staff – a total of nine – came to Xinjiang to meet me. They spoke only of joint defence against Russia and Germany. The foreign staff in his entourage would be sent under his direction to Tarbagatai, Ili and Kashgar to carry out surveys [Note: The term 洋員 implies someone of western origin, but the Narita mission was in fact staffed entirely by Japanese – R.L.]. Regarding the former, Narita planned to station four divisions of strong troops in the Lanzhou and Gansu area and considered allocating one or two divisions to be centred on Dihua. Surveys had already been conducted in the areas between Gansu, Liangzhou, Suzhou and Dihua, and a logistics plan drawn up. I considered that the statements from the foreign staff were premature in calling for the deployment of Japanese troops. Perhaps they are so concerned about the defence of our country’s northwest that they are making plans on our behalf, who can tell? But yesterday, according to an agent’s secret report, ‘Narita urgently wishes to deploy a division and a mixed brigade to Xinjiang to aid in his activities, in the name of defence against the Russians and Germans.’ Indeed, it is clear that he wants to send Japanese troops to Xinjiang.

The matter of the Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement has already been concluded. On the government’s side, it absolutely had no choice and was forced into it. After all, the first article in the secret agreement states: In view of the steady spread of enemy influence in Russian territory, with the result that the peace and tranquility of the Far East is in danger of being violated, the Chinese and Japanese armies will undertake joint defensive action in order to meet these circumstances and fulfil the duty of both countries in participating in this war. The explanatory notes state that all Japanese military authorities in Guandong; the Chinese military authorities in Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang; and the various military organisations in the battlefield must appoint attaches for liaison purposes. This will be implemented on the outbreak of hostilities. The agreement specifies the Far East and Guandong – as well as Fengtian, Jilin and Heilongjiang – as the area of joint defence, which is no different from limiting it to Manchuria [Note: The text of the Agreement does not name Guandong or the three Manchurian provinces – R.L.]. Narita wishes to use the excuse of defence against Russia and Germany to request the deployment of Japanese troops in Xinjiang. This is not in keeping with the contents of the secret agreement. Moreover, the defence of Xinjiang can be handled by China itself; the officials and people of Xinjiang can also handle it themselves. There is no need to seek help from Japanese soldiers coming from far away.

The second Otani expedition to Central Asia and Xinjiang, 1908-1909. Source.

Now Japan and Russia are fighting, the Reds have lost their power in Siberia. But in Tashkent, Andijan, Semirech’e and Zharkent, adjacent to Xinjiang, a frontier of several thousand miles is still within the Reds’ sphere of influence. Russia has Hui, Xinjiang also has Hui; Russia has Uyghurs, Xinjiang also has Uyghurs; Russia has Kazakhs, Xinjiang also has Kazakhs; Russia has Kyrgyz, Xinjiang also has Kyrgyz. All these people are of the same race and religion, yet the various nationalities of Xinjiang have not looked outwards and have not been incited by foreigners, all due to their submission to the Centre. I have secretly discussed this with the provincial legislature several times. The entire legislature represented the people in expressing the desire to unite the strength of the various nationalities in Xinjiang to preserve the province and provide both military finances and troops, valiantly shouldering this burden. They then asked the central government to assist with weaponry, whereupon the people of Xinjiang can join forces in defence. If we go with Narita’s scheme, he will first deploy strong Japanese troops, to be stationed throughout Xinjiang. Not only will this draw the attention of enemy countries, the people will also be alarmed and supply will be difficult; the frontier is distant and poor and cannot bear this burden. If, as a result, the various nationalities come to a misunderstanding, further complications will arise and their loyalties will turn elsewhere. Xinjiang’s circumstances are different from those of Manchuria, it cannot allow Japan to bring troops from far away, turning the guest into the host and causing future trouble. Moreover, if Japanese soldiers survey and are stationed in Xinjiang, all matters involving requisitioning and transport will bring them into direct contact with the inhabitants. It may be that the people will resist due to a misunderstanding. In any case, the result will be the disruption of peace in that area. If, due to this, the border situation is affected, the Hui and Uyghurs of Xinjiang-East Turkestan and the Hui and Uyghurs of Russia-West Turkestan are of the same race and language, poor management will lead to unintended consequences and we must prevent this. Indeed, Japan’s good intentions in assisting with Xinjiang’s defence will unavoidably plunge Xinjiang into danger in the end. This is something the central government must heed.

Apart from dealing with border defence matters as they arise, if the Japanese use joint defence against Russia and Germany as a pretext to suggest the deployment of troops to Xinjiang to our government, I ask that you strenuously refuse and prevent them from achieving their goals. This would consolidate the border and strengthen the nation, for which we would be very grateful. I have spoken fully and frankly; as for whether this is apt, I earnestly await your instructions.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 24 October 1918 (sent 18 October), in Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang, pp. 127-128.
International Women’s Day rally at a girls’ school in Ghulja, c. 1918. Source.

Xinjiang did not feature as much in the Japanese imperial imagination as Manchuria did, and the extensive troop deployment proposed by Narita did not materialise. Yang’s concerns, however, centred less on Japanese expansionism per se than on the province’s ethnic diversity. He had acquired and maintained power by balancing the interests of Xinjiang’s Han and Muslim populations. Any disruption to this equilibrium – be it from Whites, Reds or the Japanese – threatened to reignite ethnic tensions. Without referencing it directly, Yang’s telegram threatened Beijing with the spectre of another Dungan Revolt (1863-1877), when unrest among Xinjiang’s Hui population spread to other Turkic Muslims. “Loyalties turned elsewhere” as some Turki looked to Yaqub Beg for assistance and military leadership; the ensuing war led to the Russian occupation of Ili. This was not a risk he or Beijing should take.

Little is known of Narita’s activities after this episode; it seems that he remained at Dihua (today Urumqi), continued to provide Tokyo with intelligence and colluded with the White movement in the city. For his part, Yang consistently maintained that Xinjiang’s ethnic makeup rendered it particularly vulnerable to the effects of the Russian Civil War, including the refugee crisis, the spread of Bolshevik anti-imperialist propaganda and the recruitment of Muslim soldiers. As we shall see, it was the Russians and not the Japanese who would eventually upset his delicate balancing act as they, too, sought to use Xinjiang’s heterogeneity to their own advantage.

2 thoughts on “A Japanese Team in Xinjiang

  1. Pingback: Bolshevik Provocateurs in Xinjiang – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: Consular Misdeeds in Ili – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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