Chinese Rule in Xinjiang, 1884-1971


A review of Empire Besieged:  The Preservation of Chinese Rule in Xinjiang, 1884-1971, by Justin Jacobs.

In comparison with its neighbor Tibet, the plight of twentieth-century Xinjiang has failed to capture the public’s imagination and, with notable exceptions, serious scholarly consideration. Yet, between the fall of the Qing Empire and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the collapse of central authority, the emergence of ethno-political consciousness, and the maneuverings of foreign powers could easily have wrested the overwhelming non-Han region permanently from the Chinese orbit. That it did not is the subject of Justin Jacob’s important new study, Empire Besieged. Spanning the late Qing through the first decades of the PRC, and covering events not only in Xinjiang, but also Beijing and Nanjing, Moscow and Mecca, Turkey and Taiwan, Jacobs tells an often riveting story of “how the Han rulers of this abandoned colony weathered the loss of their central government and managed to preserve the northwestern borderlands for whomsoever emerged victorious from the civil war” (p. 18).

Taking the careers of a series of Han Chinese governors as the works organizational cynosure, Jacobs weaves in an array of fascinating characters—Hui Muslim warlords, White Russian exiles, Mongol lamas, the Uyghur vizier-turned-rebel Yolbars Khan, and the seemingly irrepressible Kazakh warrior Osman Batur, to name just a few—within a complex, erudite yet highly readable investigation of imperial transition, nation building, and frontier politics. Due in part to its dependence on foreign government reports, traveler accounts and exile writings, the previous generation of scholarship on Republican Xinjiang, most notably works by Andrew D.W. Forbes and Linda Benson, was anchored within a narrative of indigenous resistance to Han misrule. By contrast, Jacobs employs a wellspring of untapped primary sources, including both archival and published collections. The richness of the Chinese-language material allows him to construct a more nuanced study in which actors from various constituencies operated within ever-changing alignments against a background of shifting domestic and geopolitical considerations.

Chapters 2 through 4 follow the story of Yang Zengxin, in Jacobs’ hands an upright Confucian official who found himself Xinjiang’s first post-Qing governor, “an imperial official in republican robes” (p. 84). Under President Yuan Shikai, Yang was able to disarm republican ambitions that otherwise threatened to transform imperial space into colonial rule. However, as central power collapsed Xinjiang’s isolation became Yang’s saving grace. Determined to avoid any pretext for Russian intervention, Yang turned his back on Beijing, engineering a “pacifist” (p. 129-130) response to the Kazakh refuge crisis of 1916 and attempting to remain neutral in the Russian Civil War that soon spilled across his borders. This also meant eliminating Xinjiang’s “rogue localists” (p. 121-122) whose intransigence threatened to upset Yang’s “Han-Turkic-Mongol ruling alliance” (p. 116), already endangered by Soviet-inspired appeals for national determination.

In Chapter 5, Jacobs argues that the extractive policies of Yang’s successor, Jin Shuren, “set off a deadly chain reaction” (p. 522) that led to separate Uygur and Mongol rebellions and invasion by the Gansu warlord Ma Zhongying. From the wreckage of Yang Zengxin’s painfully laid coalition, in 1933 emerged perhaps the most notorious figure in Xinjiang’s recent history, General Sheng Shicai.  In Chapter 6, Jacob’s shows how “the orphan warlord” (p. 298) turned to the Soviet Union to successfully rebuff Nanjing’s attempts to re-impose central authority. “The first ruler in northwestern China forced to deal with the emerging crisis of Han colonial legitimacy” (p. 301), with Soviet sponsorship Sheng not only built a brutal police state, but also introduced an impressive propaganda regime. Bringing to Xinjiang “the modern discourse of political mobilization, Sheng countered the GMD’s rhetoric of Han-based nationalism with the language of Soviet-style “ethnic equality” and “affirmative action” (p. 338). However, as Soviet loans became due and the costs of his modernization efforts and security apparatus mounted, Sheng embarked on the first of a series of bloody purges. By the end of the decade, a concerted attack on indigenous elite privileges had once again sparked rebellion.

Chapters 7 and 8 detail how the Soviets enacted their “revenge” upon Sheng by “training, arming, and inciting the Turkic inhabitants of Xinjiang against Chinese rule” (p. 341), a process that culminated in 1944-1945 with the Ili Rebellion. Forced back into the arms of Chiang Kaishek, Sheng was slowly shunted aside and eventually replaced by a GMD-loyalist.  According to Jacobs, “the abandoned Han colony of Xinjiang was reeled in by a Central Chinese government far too week to handle its unexpected catch” (p. 341). With all sides dependent on an assortment of indigenous proxies, each with their own agendas and each seemingly more unreliable than the next, Jacobs writes that the second half of the 1940s saw unprecedented levels of “substantive non-Han agency in the northwest” (p. 388).

In his penultimate chapter, Jacob’s points to the “surprising degree of accommodation” employed by the Nationalists in the final years of their rule that in his view would have led to the “same framework of regional autonomy that the Communists established after 1949” (p. 433).  Instead, direct control over Xinjiang was “a financial and moral drain on the central government […] which benefitted only the Communists, who waltzed in unopposed by Chinese warlords and Soviet-sponsored insurgents” (p. 32). Finally, Jacobs contends that even after fleeing to Taiwan, “the threat of ethnic separatism was deemed of far greater import that a Communist regime committed to the protection of China’s national sovereignty” (p. 499). Therefore, from exile in Taiwan the onetime Uygur rebel Yolbars Khan successfully sewed division within Xinjiang’s exile community, which Jacob’s asserts helps explain the lack of a unified Uygur opposition on par with Tibet’s Dalai Lama.

Packed with a wealth of information on Republican-era China, including new details on center-periphery, Sino-Soviet, and interethnic relations, Empire Besieged should excite scholars beyond specialist of Xinjiang and other ethnic border regions. More broadly, we discover how in an era of decolonization China was able to transition from empire to nation while maintaining its hold over what Governor Yang had long ago admitted was a Han colonial possession. In short, Jacobs has not only written a detailed study of the “the political superstructure of Republican Xinjiang” (p. 18), but also made an important contribution to the still unfolding story of modern China.

Benno Ryan Weiner
Appalachian State University
Department of History

Primary Sources


Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan
Xinjiang Provincial Archives, PRC

Published Primary Source Collections (Selected)

Gansu sheng guji wenxian zhengli bianyi zhongxin, ed., Zhongguo xibei wenxian congshu, er bian [Collection of documents relating to northwest China, series two], vols. 10–16 (Beijing, 2006)
Xinjiang Wei-wu-er zizhiqu dang’an ju, Zhongguo shehui kexue yuan bianjiang shidi yanjiu zhongxin, and “Xinjiang tongshi” bianzhuan weiyuanhui, eds., Jindai Xinjiang menggu lishi dang’an [Historical documents on the Mongols in modern Xinjiang] (Wulumuqi, 2007).
Yang Zengxin, Buguozhai wendu [Records from the Studio of Rectification], 6 vols.(1921; repr. ed., Taibei, 1965).
Zhang Dajun, Xinjiang fengbao qishi nian [Seventy years of turbulence in Xinjiang], 12 vols. (Taibei, 1980).

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego. 2011. 548 pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph W. Esherick and Paul G. Pickowicz.


Image: Yang Zengxin, governor of Xinjiang, 1912–28. Justin Jacobs’ private collection.

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