Consular Misdeeds in Ili

In a previous post, we saw how the fighting between Reds and Whites in Semirech’e sent waves of refugees – and “refugee warriors” – into Xinjiang. Those fleeing the violence included not only ethnic Russians, but also Uyghurs, Dungans and Kazaks who held Russian citizenship. Building on his experiences of the 1916 Central Asian Uprising, Xinjiang governor Yang Zengxin adopted China’s official approach to such escapees: Civilians should be temporarily settled, while soldiers should be disarmed before they were allowed in. Requests for extradition were to be denied.

The Russian consulate in Ghulja (Yining), 1907. Probably from the Mannerheim expedition. Source.

Such a policy was difficult enough to implement, given Xinjiang’s porous and sparsely-manned border. It put a strain on local resources and threatened to destabilise the province’s ethnic equilibrium, which Yang had spent his entire career engineering. Adding yet another spanner in the works, however, were the province’s Russian consuls. Their appointments pre-dated the 1917 revolutions and their sympathies lay largely with the anti-Bolshevik movement. Since China had not officially recognised the new Soviet government, it continued to work with these consuls despite repeated requests from the Reds to dismiss or extradite them. When a consular guard was suspected of harbouring Bolshevik sympathies, local officials replaced them with Chinese troops at the consul’s request. This allowed the consuls to act as brokers for the White movement.






On 15 April, a telegram from Ili circuit intendant Xu [Guozhen] read:

‘On the Russian consul [V.F.] Liuba handling matters obstinately and high-handedly, this has been reported on by the circuit intendant and there is no need to belabour the point. However, recently the consul has recruited several hundred refugee Russian Uyghurs, conducting daily drills and saying that this is in preparation for a strike on the Reds in Zharkent. The news has spread and there is a rumour that Reds have resolved to pre-emptively attack the consul and eliminate these refugee Uyghurs. If our troops block them and prevent them from entering the border, they will certainly open hostilities with us first. Indeed, the arbitrary and foolhardy actions of the Russian consul alone has caused Ili’s border situation to be undermined. This is an unintended and unwelcome development. I consider that the refugee Uyghurs recruited by the consul are no more than a group of jobless vagrants, who only want some food for the moment. They have no calibre to speak of. The consul’s intentions are also no more than to make use of them to expand his illusory power. He must know that they will be of no real use apart from attracting immense, immediate and genuine disaster, and bringing anxiety to our local populations. Thinking the matter over, rather than bring imminent conflict to Xinjiang, it would be better to disperse the refugee Uyghurs who were recruited by the consul. Moreover, the training of troops in Chinese territory by Russians has never been stipulated in the treaties but, if we dispute the matter with the consul based on the treaties alone, he will certainly not comply. If we do not increase our resolve, he will not abide by our terms. I humbly request that the military governor instruct both the defence commissioner [Yang Feixia] and myself to negotiate with the consul and pre-emptively disperse the refugees by force of arms, to maintain border security. As for whether this appropriate, I present this for your consideration.’

I have wired a response, which reads:

‘Wire of the 10th from circuit intendant Xu received and read on the 15th. On Liuba’s recruitment of Uyghurs fleeing from Russia for military service, the circuit intendant should make strong representations to the Russian consul, with troops deployed to escort [the Uyghurs] back to Russia. He is not to recruit soldiers and conduct drills in Ili, such that the Reds and Whites will both turn Ili into a battlefield, undermining border security. Please comply. Apart from wiring the government, I am sending this response.’

I consider that all of consul Liuba’s activities in Ili are indeed an impediment to border security. Besides instructing both civilian and military officials in Ili to be on strict guard, I am presenting this for your consideration and counsel.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 30 April 1919 (sent 17 April). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang, pp. 191-192.
A Dungan mosque in Ghulja. From the 13 December 1943 edition of Life magazine. Source.

Ili consul Liuba was particularly irksome to the Chinese authorities. Prior to his posting in Xinjiang, he had served in Mongolia and been involved in the intrigues surrounding Mongolian independence from the Qing empire in 1911. Following the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks in Semirech’e called for his removal, eventually going so far as to threaten military action if the Chinese did not comply. In the absence of firm instructions from Beijing, however, Yang retained him and provided him with a Chinese guard. Liuba promptly became embroiled in disputes with Ili officials over the latter’s alleged food-for-opium deals with the Reds, his authority to conduct searches on Chinese citizens, shipments of weapons for the Whites, and the disarming of escapee White soldiers. By March 1919, both Yang and the Beijing government had gone so far as to ask Russian ambassador Kudashev to replace him. The recruitment of refugee Uyghurs brought tensions to a new level, with Beijing sanctioning his expulsion if necessary.

Kudashev was himself partial to the Whites. Not only did he have no intention of censuring Liuba, he requested that Beijing permit the enlistment of entire brigades in Ili. In August, therefore, Liuba was still putting up notices in Ghulja openly calling for recruits, including among the city’s Muslims who were Russian citizens. Yang responded by appealing to the memory of the Central Asian Uprising, when the tsarist army’s attempts to draft Muslims had resulted in a bloody rebellion. Liuba’s insubordination threatened to transplant the Uprising to Chinese territory, and Muslim communities in Ili were already showing signs of resistance. A concerted effort by civilian and military officials in Ili finally put a stop to the recruitment, at least among Russian Muslims.

Chinese soldiers near Kashgar, 1906. From the Mannerheim expedition. Source.

Nevertheless, Liuba was not alone in his machinations. The Russian consuls in Tarbagatai, Kashgar and Urumqi all acted on behalf of the Whites to varying degrees, including aiding in weapons procurement, drafting and assembling recruits, sheltering “refugee warriors”such as Dutov and Annenkov, or securing passage through Xinjiang from one front to another. It raises interesting questions about the independence and activism of Russian diplomats during this period, as well as their relationships with the diverse Russian diasporic community, some of whom may have interpreted their interests very differently. In Persia, for example, where Russian consuls had gained significant power and independence following the occupation of Persian territories in 1911, relations between them and their charges soured rapidly after the March Revolution. Anti-consular rhetoric then became a potential bridge between Russian revolutionaries and Iranians. Xinjiang, of course, did not have the same tradition of constitutional struggle or an ongoing Russian occupation as Persia did during this period. But, as a subsequent post will show, disaffection with Russia’s consuls would eventually reach a stage where some Muslim representatives no longer considered them effective guardians – and contemplated abandoning Russian citizenship altogether.

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