A Eurasian Crossroads Now in China

The latest issue (a year late!) of China Review International (Project MUSE subscription required) contains a review by Thomas Barfield of a book that sounds interesting: James A. Millward’s Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). Here are a few excerpts from the review.

As befits a key link in the international Silk Route in premodern times, the region’s people proved historically open to new ideas and opportunities. Some of these opportunities were thrust upon them. The territory constituting today’s Xinjiang appears never to have been unified politically except under the rule of outsiders. These outsiders were strikingly diverse, coming as they did at different times from every surrounding territory. From the east, the Han and Tang dynasties vied with the northern Mongolian steppe-based Xiongnu, Turk, and Uighur nomad empires for influence and political control. The Tibetan Empire on its southern flank also extended its rule over the region at various times during the seventh through the ninth centuries. The west was not entirely absent in these struggles either. The Sogdian city-states of Central Asia had great influence over their eastern cousins in the Tang dynasty, and during the eleventh century the Turkish Qara Khanids, based in Bukhara, became the dominant regional power. They were displaced at the beginning of the twelfth century by royal Manchurian refugees of the Liao dynasty from North China who reestablished themselves there as the Qara Khitai. Although neither Turks nor Muslims, the Qara Khitai proved successful rulers until they were finally ousted by the Mongols in 1218. Chinese influence (even if by way of a Manchurian people) was then notably absent from the region for the next five hundred years. The oases and neighboring steppe zones fell under different post-Mongol successor states until the Qing dynasty captured the area in 1757….

Despite local complaints about unfair taxation, the court bureaucrats in Beijing were well aware that the Qing colonial administration and military garrisons in Xinjiang constituted a money pit that swallowed up revenue from other parts of China.

The structural fragility of China’s position in Central Asia became clear in 1864, when a series of successful local rebellions spread from one oasis to another so rapidly that Qing control vanished entirely in a matter of months. Yaqub Beg, an adventurer from Kokand (recently annexed by Czarist Russia) took advantage of the situation to establish an independent emirate and opened diplomatic ties with British India, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. The Qing court was divided about whether Xinjiang merited the huge expense required to recover it. There was established precedent in China for writing off the remote western region a dead loss: both the Han and Tang dynasties had done so when their power waned and the Ming dynasty never went there in the first place. There were also other demands on the treasury made by officials who saw the modernization of China’s military as a higher priority than funding a risky colonial war. Millward’s analysis of how the Qing dynasty’s preoccupation with maintaining its inner Asian frontier intact demonstrates that Xinjiang loomed far larger in importance for them than for dynasties of Han Chinese origin. In the event, after deciding to fund a military campaign, the Qing struck it lucky. Yaqub Beg died unexpectedly in 1877, and his emirate collapsed. Qing forces quickly reoccupied Xinjiang without facing a serious battle.

It is at this point that the Qing incorporated Xinjiang directly into China as a province. Millward shows that the resulting reorganization of the local government along Chinese lines, plus the cost of garrison troops, made its continued occupation of the region even more costly, asserting it to be an underestimated factor in China’s failure to compete effectively with the Western powers and Japan at the turn of the century. The reorganization also placed ethnic Han Chinese influenced by anti-Manchu nationalism in provincial leadership positions. This had negative consequences for the Qing since they fomented rebellion against the dynasty, but a long-term positive consequences for China. Such officials, small minorities in a distant land, were keen to ensure that the province remained a part of China after the Qing was replaced by a republic in 1911. These Chinese governors (“warlords,” more pejoratively) gave lip service to the Republic of China in Nanking and did as they pleased in Xinjiang. Millward’s descriptions of their political machinations and murders show them as strikingly ruthless and practical, unhindered by any set of Confucian values. What the republic got in return was the continued right to claim Xinjiang as a Chinese province—no small prize since other inner-Asian territories eventually broke their ties with China: Mongolia under Russian protection, Manchuria by Japanese annexation, and Tibet through de facto self-rule.

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Filed under Central Asia, China, Mongolia, nationalism, religion, Russia, Tibet, Turkey

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