Bolshevik Provocateurs in Xinjiang

In a previous post, we examined the Bolsheviks’ early attempts to win over the Chinese. Speaking unofficially to members of the Chinese embassy, the Soviet government offered to roll back the Russian concession along the Chinese Eastern Railway, abolish treaties “impeding the freedom and independence of the Chinese people”, and cancel Russia’s share of the Boxer Indemnity. Conventional diplomacy, however, was only one aspect of Bolshevik foreign policy. Even in the midst of the Civil War, the advancement of world revolution through underground activity or direct appeals could not be wholly neglected.

As agreeable as the Soviets’ anti-imperialist gestures may have seemed, therefore, the Chinese authorities were alive to the disruptive potential of Bolshevik agitation. The situation in Xinjiang was particularly delicate. Governor Yang Zengxin was determined to avoid any unrest among Xinjiang’s majority Muslim population and keep the province within the Chinese Republic. Yet it was precisely these “Muslims of the East” that the Bolsheviks addressed in their propaganda, calling on them to support the revolution and develop their national and cultural life free from imperialist domination. In Russian Turkestan, the revolution had resulted in an outpouring of Muslim activism across the political spectrum. This ferment could easily spread to their co-ethnics in China, as British ambassador Sir John Jordan warned.

“Now I too am free”: An emancipated Muslim woman turns her back on the mosque and joins a youth organisation. Poster from 1921. Source.


Regarding the activities detrimental to Allied interests in Russia’s Tashkent province, this was conveyed in my correspondence of 23 January last year to Your Ministry, requesting that the Xinjiang authorities prevent the incitement of rebellious activity in Chinese territory and ensure that disorder does not spread into China. Now I have heard that the Bolshevik government in Tashkent is dispatching agitators to disseminate their party’s ideas in various quarters. Moreover, that quasi-government has issued a declaration inciting the people of China and other countries to revolt in sympathy with extremism. Hence, I request that the Xinjiang governor be instructed to report on the current measures to block the declaration, as well as to strengthen defences on the Sino-Russian border, it being of great importance that Bolshevik agitators do not slip into Chinese territory.

Memorandum from the British embassy, 18 January 1919 (sent 15 January). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang, pp. 157-158.

Jordan’s alarm was shared by Russian ambassador Kudashev, who warned that Bolshevik representatives were en route to Ghulja to set up a Jadidist society there. The Foreign Ministry took both messages seriously, conveying them to Yang on the same day that they were received. Yang’s reply was somewhat overconfident, given the porousness of the Xinjiang border and the presence of pro-Bolshevik groups among Russian citizens in Ghulja.

Central Asian komsomol delegates in Red Square, 1921. Source.


The British and Russian ambassadors have said that Russian Hui and Uyghurs plan to agitate among Chinese citizens and greater vigilance is needed. The Hui and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are of the same language and race, but between treason and patriotism, their goals are different. Our country cannot ensure that Russian Hui and Uyghurs do not come as provocateurs, but can ensure that our Hui and Uyghurs are not provoked. If China’s Hui and Uyghurs were not provoked before the end of the European War, they will not be provoked after the end of the War. If they were not provoked when Russia’s disorder was at its peak, they will not be provoked when the disorder is about to settle. However, since the Russians plan to agitate among the Chinese, our country cannot but increase its vigilance. As for the British and Russian Hui and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, one should also ask the British and Russian consuls to instruct the local merchant leaders under British and Russian jurisdiction to exercise strict controls, in order to avoid incitement by the Russian Reds. For example, the 1918 disorder in Kucha was led by an Uyghur merchant who fradulently obtained a British trading permit and became a British subject. This was previously reported on. Russia’s internal disorder will not be settled in short order. The troops in all the checkpoints along the Xinjiang border have been instructed to strengthen their defences and prevent the Reds from stealing in. Please set your mind at ease.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 25 January 1919 (sent 23 January). Ibid., pp. 160-161.
Demonstration in support of the Kokand Autonomy, Kokand, November 1917. Source.

Yang’s telegram underscored not only the complexities of ethnicity in Xinjiang but also those of subjecthood. The leader of the 1918 Kucha uprising, Muhammad Ali, had obtained a false document from a British-sponsored merchant leader (aqsaqal), with which he could register as a British subject. Such a casual approach to certifying subjecthood was a longstanding feature of the province, where both British and Russian consuls engaged in competitive registration – often on less than valid grounds – as a means of increasing their foothold in Xinjiang. This, in turn, undermined Chinese control over Xinjiang residents and represented an erosion of Chinese sovereignty. Yang’s pointed rejoinder demonstrated his frustration with the practice: How could Chinese officials be expected to police the population if their legal authority was undermined by foreign diplomats?

In fact the main obstacle to Bolshevik activity in Xinjiang was not Yang’s border controls, but the lack of a coherent revolutionary policy in the early years of the Civil War. Should the Bolsheviks agitate among Xinjiang’s Muslims and risk the ire of Chinese officials? Just who were the oppressed colonial populations and who the oppressive imperialists: Turkic Muslims, the Han authorities, or the “Chinese people” for whom the Soviets expressed such sympathy? How would revolutionary agitation serve the concrete interests of famine-stricken Turkestan – especially those regions which depended on Xinjiang for trade – or the prospects for Sino-Soviet friendship? When the White movement in Turkestan collapsed in late 1920, the Bolsheviks stepped up their intervention in Xinjiang, aided by the Comintern’s enthusiasm for spreading revolution in Asia. But these questions continued to divide would-be provocateurs. Xinjiang’s ethnic heterogeneity and peripheral status within the semi-colonial Chinese state only highlighted the difficulty of identifying a revolutionary subject. Agitation among Xinjiang’s Muslims would have to be circumscribed as long as the revolution in China proper remained a priority.

2 thoughts on “Bolshevik Provocateurs in Xinjiang

  1. Pingback: A Red Conference in Shanghai? – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: A Mission to Moscow? – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s