Oil, Ore & State-building in Xinjiang 1893-1964


A review of Staking Claims to China’s Borderland: Oil, Ores, and State-building in Xinjiang Province, 1893-1964, by Judd Creighton Kinzley.

Staking Claims to China’s Borderland is a vividly written dissertation which maps Xinjiang’s transformation from a remote hinterland in Central Asia to an integral administrative, political, and economic unit of China. Refusing to accept that Xinjiang’s integration into the Central Kingdom was historically inevitable—a pervasive trope in the Chinese literature on Xinjiang—Kinzley anchors his study around the relationship between natural resource extraction and the delicate process of state-building in Chinese Central Asia. In doing so, he not only presents new insights on how Xinjiang’s relationship with China evolved from the late Qing through the heyday of the People’s Republic, but also brings an important environmental perspective to the history of state-building in modern China. As Kinzley writes in his conclusion, natural resource extraction was “an integral factor in the process of transforming Qing frontiers into Chinese borders and creating a cohesive, integrated Chinese nation-state.” (p. 360).

Arguing that the extraction of Xinjiang’s natural resources mirrored the expansion and consolidation of the Chinese state, Kinzley draws on the insights of William Cronon, Erich Zimmerman, and James C. Scott to flesh out his narrative of how humans interacted with the environment in Xinjiang. Kinzley eschews the common tendency of focusing on farming settlements and agricultural production in Xinjiang (see, for example, Amy P. Kardos, “Transformation in China’s Northwest Borderland: The Making of An ‘Immigrant City,’ 1949-1958, Ph.D diss., Cornell University, 2008; Thomas Hoppe, Chinesische Agrarpolitik und uygurische Agrarkultur im Widerstreit, Hamburg: Institute für Asienkunde, 1992), believing that it was only by harnessing Xinjiang’s natural resources that the Chinese state was ultimately able to control and integrate this restive and remote territory.

Significantly, Kinzley’s analysis of state-building is not limited to decisions made in China’s various capitals (depending on the period, Beijing, Nanjing, and Chongqing). He describes in impressive detail the important role played by the Soviet Union in Xinjiang’s political and economic history while giving agency to a diverse cast of local and regional actors in Northwest China, particularly the three successive Han Chinese governors from the Republican era (Yang Zengxin, Jin Shuren, and Sheng Shicai). It was only through the complex interactions between individuals across China and between officials at home and abroad, Kinzley suggests, that Xinjiang’s natural resources were marshaled and this region, once a frontier periphery, became inseparable from the Chinese state.

The dissertation is made up of an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion and epilogue. In the introduction, Kinzley lays out his argument that successive efforts to master resource extraction in Xinjiang went in tandem with the consolidation of the Chinese state. Though a growing body of literature has emerged in recent years on Xinjiang’s twentieth century, Kinzley reminds us that these studies have rarely explored the dynamic between humans and the environment, and specifically mineral wealth, in this region. Thus, the political, diplomatic, and even the economic histories of Xinjiang have overlooked a crucial tenet of Chinese state-building: the desire to grab hold of Xinjiang’s oil, ores, gold, and other valuable and strategic natural resources. In the latter half of the introduction, Kinzley also provides an excellent description of the many primary sources used throughout the dissertation (see below) as well as a roadmap for the remainder of the text.

Chapter one opens the dissertation at the tail end of the Qing Dynasty. Kinzley describes how Xinjiang’s heavy reliance on subsidies from the central government and inter-provincial assistance became unsustainable in the late nineteenth century, in turn causing the Qing court to seek out alternatives for funding this distant and diverse province. One proposal, enthusiastically promoted by a diplomat named Xu Jingcheng, drew on the history of Russian and British mining expeditions in Central Asia and suggested that the government should begin to tap into Xinjiang’s rich gold reserves. According to Kinzley, Xu was not just thinking about dollars and cents; rather, Xu also believed that mining efforts in Xinjiang would help tie the region more closely to Beijing by effectively blocking the encroachment of outside powers.

Xu’s proposal and the central government’s endorsement of mining in Xinjiang were initially challenged by local officials, who, in down to earth fashion, pointed out the exorbitant start-up costs involved and the absence of transportation infrastructure in the region. But as funding from China proper sharply declined in the late 1800s, the Qing’s foot soldiers in Xinjiang gradually reversed course and began to promote mining enterprises across the province. These efforts, however, were handicapped from the very beginning by investment shortfalls and decentralized planning. Unable to secure funding from the Qing central government or Chinese merchants, local officials considered obtaining financing from Russia but ultimately feared that this would lead to a takeover from  outside the empire’s borders. As Kinzley concludes, mining in late Qing Xinjiang faltered as officials realized that “only a massive infusion of capital from outside the province would transform this frontier region into a financially self-sufficient province of the Chinese nation-state” (p. 79).

Chapter two, surveying Xinjiang during the tumultuous Republican era, centers on the statesman and de facto diplomat Yang Zengxin, the first Republican governor of Xinjiang. As Kinzley reveals, Yang inherited a province mired in difficulties; at the same time, however, Yang also exacerbated many of Xinjiang’s problems through a series of short-sighted economic policies. Much like the late Qing administration, the new regime led by Yuan Shikai was unwilling and unable to subsidize the Northwest. With inter-provincial assistance lacking and the provincial government’s coffers running desperately low, Yang resorted to printing ever-larger quantities of currency while implementing budget cuts across the board. Unsurprisingly, Yang’s early governing strategies accomplished little that was beneficial for the province.

Kinzley then describes how Yang, after several years of spinning his wheels, finally turned his gaze upon Xinjiang’s natural resources. Interestingly, and like several Qing counterparts, Yang engaged with mining and resource extraction for both political and economic reasons. Drawing on Yang’s voluminous writings, Kinzley argues that the Governor believed mining would allow the Chinese government to tighten its grips on Xinjiang’s lands, which were so fervently desired by the Russians. According to Kinzley, “the fact that this defensive border policy also had the potential to increase the production of revenue was only a bonus” (p. 100).

Though Yang proposed cooperating directly with the Russians as a means of raising capital, the Governor maintained that joint-ventures did not necessarily have to equate a loss of Chinese sovereignty. Yang’s salesmanship worked so well, however, that the national government attempted to displace Yang from these international mining ventures altogether. Greatly offended, Yang then began to pursue policies to partially shelter the province from the greedy hands of the central government. Moreover, Yang was fearful of political instability in China proper having a ripple effect on Xinjiang. According to Kinzley, Yang thus resisted efforts to draw Xinjiang closer to China proper via the construction of rail and other transportation networks, and at the same time he strived to maintain a clear distance from Russia. It was a delicate balancing act for Yang; it was also ultimately unsustainable. As the 1920s came to a close, Kinzley demonstrates how “[Yang] and his successors had little choice but to jump into the arms of the Soviet Union” (p. 120).

In chapter three, Kinzley turns directly to the Soviet Union and the transnational dimension of resource extraction in Xinjiang, a theme which continues through to the end of the dissertation. Though Russian trade with Xinjiang dropped off precipitously during the turbulent late 1910s and early 1920s, after 1922 the Soviet Union vigorously pounced on its economic interests in the region. Though Yang Zengxin welcomed the revival of cross-border trade at first, the flow of Soviet goods into Xinjiang increased rapidly and the Han Governor soon questioned Moscow’s endgame in Xinjiang. In one of many lively quotations dug up by Kinzley, Yang asks, “how will our ‘New Dominion’ (Xinjiang), not turn into the Russian ‘new dominion (xinjiang)’?” (p. 130).

After Yang’s assassination in July 1928, the second Republican governor of Xinjiang, Jin Shuren, attempted to strengthen the provincial government’s hand vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. In addition to spurring some institutional innovations, Jin also sought to balance out Xinjiang’s foreign economic relations in the 1920s and he pushed for closer economic ties with China proper. As Kinzley reveals, however, both of these efforts fell short of Jin’s desired goals and “the era of Xinjiang’s autonomy…was inexorably coming to a close” (p. 153). Even under the strongman Sheng Shicai, Xinjiang’s third Republican governor, the province remained firmly entrenched within the Soviet economy. “Xinjiang drifted into the Soviet orbit,” Kinzley writes, “and slowly but surely was transformed into a Soviet hinterland charged with providing the raw materials needed to fuel its industrial machine” (p. 173).

Chapter four continues the dissertation’s narrative chronologically and explores the dealings among provincial governor Sheng Shicai, the Soviet Union, and Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang regime during World War II. During the initial stages of the Japanese invasion of China, Xinjiang became an important locus for Sino-Soviet cooperation and the central staging area for the supply of war materials from Moscow to Chongqing. According to Kinzley, “as far as the Nationalist government was concerned, Xinjiang was a bridge or a dusty conduit linking China with their closest ally” (p. 189). In the background of this wartime cooperation, however, Xinjiang’s economy still struggled to take off. As Kinzley demonstrates, Sheng Shicai and his Minister of Finance Mao Zemin (the brother of Mao Zedong) creatively tried to raise provincial revenues and pay back the province’s debts, but few of these policy prescriptions had any long-term benefits. Fortuitously or not, the start of the Soviet-German war in 1941 accentuated Moscow’s interests in Xinjiang’s natural resources. A stream of Soviet geologists and experts entered the province, making new discoveries of oil, gas, beryllium, tungsten, copper, and other resources. “Through the collective effort of the Soviet Union’s geological community,” Kinzley states, “geologists and economic planners pieced together a large scale geological map which presented a new mineral rich image of the province” (p. 210).

This was not just an exercise in knowledge production, however, as Kinzley demonstrates. Safe “from the range of German panzer divisions and long distance bombing raids,” the Soviet Union tapped into Xinjiang’s oil fields at unprecedented speeds in the early 1940s. (p. 215). Suddenly the province became indelibly associated with dreams of black gold, and Sheng Shicai as well as Guomindang officials in Chongqing obsessed over this lucrative natural wealth. Sheng, a conniving and self-interested political leader, began a plot to push the Soviets out of the province and reassert control over Xinjiang’s oil fields. By 1942, after falling into the full embrace of Chongqing, Sheng had succeeded in cutting off the Soviets from Xinjiang’s natural resources.

In chapter five, Kinzley explores Xinjiang during the latter part of World War II. Though the Guomindang was enthralled by their new position of dominance in mineral-rich Xinjiang, the regime quickly realized that it did not have the know-how or capital to finance resource extraction on the scale desired. Kinzley reveals how the central government tightened its control over and connectivity to Xinjiang through myriad ways—new financial institutions, new settler programs, and new roads and railways—but describes how the absence of the Soviet Union harmed the region’s economy and, in particular, limited the extent to which Xinjiang could be used as a conduit for wartime transshipments.

From cooperation, the Sino-Soviet relationship drifted into conflict in Xinjiang. Kinzley provides ample evidence to demonstrate how Sheng Shicai went to great lengths to aggravate the Soviet Union, and how the Soviets, in turn, did their best to wreak havoc upon Sheng’s administration. Most notably, the Soviet Union emerged as the primary supporter of the East Turkestan Republic (ETR), a rebellious and short-lived independent regime which took control over northern Xinjiang. Kinzley’s discussion of the ETR and Soviet policy is refreshing and avoids many of the polemics and analytical pitfalls evident in other works on this subject (i.e., David D. Wang, Under the Soviet Shadow: The Yining Incident: Ethnic Conflicts and International Rivalry in Xinjiang, 1944-1949, Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1999). Kinzley demonstrates how the Soviet Union, by backing the ETR in its existential and material struggle against the Guomindang, was once again able to tap into the region’s rich natural resources. From 1944 through 1949, Xinjiang was a divided land with two opposing patrons. The region was not one hinterland, but two, in Kinzley’s apt phrasing.

Chapter six crosses the 1949 divide and brings the dissertation all the way up to 1964. Kinzley first narrates the eleventh-hour attempts of the Nationalist government to negotiate new agreements on resource extraction with the Soviet Union, but, as he depicts, the Nanjing government was unavoidably in a position of weakness in these discussions. After the retreat of the Guomindang to Taiwan, the CCP quickly picked up the pieces and entered into a series of trade and cooperative agreements with Moscow. The two allies formed joint stock companies for the mining of non-ferrous and rare minerals and for the drilling of oil, though the spirit of friendship in these enterprises was not always on display. Nevertheless, the Soviets remained instrumental in Xinjiang’s economic development throughout the 1950s. When Mao Zedong called for increased oil production, for example, Chinese officials relied to a great extent on the support of, and footwork laid by, Soviet technicians. Though Xinjiang remained a hinterland to both Moscow and Beijing throughout the 1950s, the rupturing of Sino-Soviet relations in 1960 and the completion of the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway in 1962, as Kinzley argues, turned Xinjiang decisively toward China. “Together they reveal,” according to Kinzley, “the end point in a 71 year quest by Chinese officials to stake an unalloyed claim to Xinjiang’s mineral wealth and incorporate it into national development plans” (p. 341).

The conclusion and epilogue, or chapter seven, reviews the “lurching and highly uneven process of [Xinjiang’s] integration” from the late Qing through the People’s Republic (p. 342) and provides a succinct narrative of many of the key arguments featured throughout the dissertation. Kinzley also describes the imprint left behind by the history of resource extraction on more contemporary efforts to exploit Xinjiang’s natural wealth.

Studying the “New Frontier” is still politically sensitive in Mainland China, and one is always encumbered by problems relating to the accessibility and reliability of source materials. Nevertheless, Kinzley’s argument is buoyed by an extensive and wide-ranging list of primary sources. He draws on Chinese-language archival documents from the First Historical Archives (Beijing); the Central Geological Survey (Beijing); the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Archives (Urumqi); the Archives of the Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica (Taipei); the National History (Guoshiguan) Archives, Academia Historica (Taipei); and the Shanghai Municipal Archives. In light of the extremely poor research environment in Urumqi, Kinzley’s work in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Archives should be appreciated in particular. He is, after all, among the first foreigners to do so.

Kinzley’s dissertation also benefits from, and makes ample use of, a variety of published and unpublished document collections, including the papers of Yang Zengxin and the voluminous Chinese translations of Soviet archival sources compiled by Shen Zhihua of East China Normal University. These sources in particular allow Kinzley to paint a portrait of Soviet policy in Xinjiang on par with, perhaps even in excess of, the work of the Russian historian V.A. Barmin (See Sovetskij Sojuz i Sinʹczjan: 1918-1941 gg, Barnaul: Barnaul’skii gosudarstvennyii pedagogicheskii universitet, 1999, and Sin’tszian v sovetsko-kitaikikh otnosheniiakh, 1941-1949 gg, Barnaul: Barnaul’skii gosudarstvennyii pedagogicheskii universitet, 1999). In sum, Kinzley has amassed an impressive amount of source material for his dissertation and in the process has set an archival standard which others in this field will have difficulty surpassing.

Kinzley’s work will be appreciated by a diverse range of scholars working on and around modern Chinese history. First and foremost, his study—among the first to draw so heavily on Chinese-language sources—will undoubtedly become one of the central texts on Xinjiang’s twentieth century. Outside of the relatively small niche of Xinjiang studies, Kinzley’s suggestion that resource extraction also bears on state-building efforts in other Chinese peripheries will stimulate discussion and debate in the growing body of work on China’s other frontiers, including the Northeast, the Southwest, and Tibet. More broadly, scholars studying the transformation of the Chinese empire into the Chinese nation-state and the prolonged nature of “China’s postimperial transition” (Thomas Mullaney, Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011, p. 3) will necessarily have to consider the dynamic between humans and the environment highlighted by Kinzley.

Charles Kraus
Department of History
The George Washington University

Primary Sources

Academia Historica (Guoshiguan) Archives, Taipei, Taiwan, R.O.C.
Central Geological Survey of China, Geological Information Office, Beijing, P.R.C.
Institute of Modern History Archive, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan R.O.C.
Shanghai Municipal Archives, Shanghai, P.R.C.
Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region Archives, Urumqi, P.R.C.
Shen Zhihua 沈志华, ed. Eguo jiemi dangan: Xinjiang wenti 俄国解密档案:新疆问题 (unpublished manuscript)

Dissertation Information

University of California San Diego. 2012. 372 pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph Esherick and Paul Pickowicz.


Image: Guomintang Party in Xinjiang, 1942. Wikimedia Commons.

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