The Xinjiang takeover: China’s master-stroke
By taking over Xinjiang, communist China controlled the western borders of the Middle Kingdom, access trade with Central Asia, block any possibility of Soviet advance, and come in contact with Indian frontiers
Xinjiang, China’s western province, has often been in the news during the last few months, mainly due to instability of the region and the repressive measures taken by Beijing to curb ‘religious extremism’ and the rise of ‘terrorism and separatism’ amongst the Uyghur local population. It is interesting to look at how communist China annexed the ‘New Dominion’, as Xinjiang was known.
It was perhaps one of the greatest strategic feats in modern military annals. Mao Zedong’s words are telling about the mindset of the Chinese military leaders at that time (has it changed today?): “People may ask if there is contradiction to abandon a territory gained by heroic battle. This is to put the wrong question. Does one eat to no purpose simply because he relieves himself later? Does one sleep in vain because one wakes up and goes about? These are illusions born out of subjectivism and formalism and do not exist in real life.”
There was no question of Mao of losing territory in 1949; in fact, ‘real life’ meant controlling the periphery of the Middle Kingdom as fast as possible, starting by the ‘liberation’ of Xinjiang and Tibet.
On February 4, 1949, during a meeting with Soviet Foreign Trade Minister Anastas Mikoyan, Mao Zedong raised the issue of Xinjiang and pointed to the northwestern district of Ili (today’s Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture), where China had noted the presence of a Communist Party. Mikoyan said that he did not know about the existence of communists in the area, but he was aware of nationalist forces wanting independence: “This movement was triggered by the incorrect policy of the Chinese Government, which does not want to take into account the national specifics of these nationalities, does not permit the development of the national culture.”
The Russian Minister continued: “If the nationalities of Xinjiang were given autonomy, the soil for the independence movement would likely [disappear]. We do not stand for the movement of independence of the Xinjiang nationalities and do not have any claims on Xinjiang territory.” After Mao had been the green light he needed, he explained that China planned “giving Xinjiang autonomy, in the same manner as for Inner Mongolia, which is already an autonomous region”.
Interestingly, Mao enquired “whether there is a lot of oil in Xinjiang or a little”. He also suggested the construction of “a railroad connecting the Chinese railroads with the Soviet railroads through Xinjiang. This would have great significance for joint defence in case of a new war [with the West]”. Had he in mind a project similar to Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road?
While the remnants of the nationalist forces were systematically annihilated in the mainland, in Xinjiang, Mao used a two-pronged ‘war’ tactic: First inducing the surrender of the nationalist forces and then sending a large number of troops in two different directions (north and south Xinjiang); the assurance of support received from the Soviets made things easier.
By swiftly taking over Xinjiang, the communists would control the western borders of the Middle Kingdom, access trade with Central Asia, block any possibility of Soviet advance in the region (in case the Soviet leaders changed their mind later) and come in contact with the Indian frontiers, particularly in the Aksai Chin area. By the end of September 1949, a large contingent of communist troops started moving towards the New Dominion where a 70,000-strong nationalist force was still stationed.
Following the Hexi (Gansu) Corridor, the PLA advanced towards Urumqi, which was ruled by a coalition comprising the Nationalists (KMT) and representatives of the former Second East Turkistan Republic (ETR), supported by the Soviet Union. The ETR sympathisers were particularly strong in the three districts in northwestern Xinjiang, where they had retained some autonomy, while the KMT controlled most of southern Xinjiang. After having obtained the Soviet support, the second phase was marked by Chiang Kaishek’s Generals turning coat. On September 25, Tao Zhiyue, the Nationalist Commander-in-Chief of the Xinjiang garrison and Burhan Shahidi, the Political Commissar, announced the formal surrender of the nationalist forces to the Chinese communists. Several Kuomintang Generals joined the PLA and began serving the communists; those who refused to surrender fled to Taiwan or Turkey. A second victory for Mao …without fighting!
Later, the five ETR leaders who were to negotiate with the communists, died in an air crash in Soviet airspace over the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic; it was rumoured that they were murdered. The way was now open for Mao’s troops. Starting from Yumen, east of Jiuquan in Gansu Province, the communist troops went through indescribably harsh terrain, deep gorges, cold desert, and “they started a massive advance of forces towards Xinjiang along north and south of Tian mountain”, says the Chinese account.
With poor communications, the advance of communist forces into Xinjiang was extremely ‘difficult and risky’; the distances were long, 1,253km from Jiuquan to Urumqi and 2,547km from Kashgar: “In order to overcome the communication and transportation difficulties, Soviet Union came for assistance with 40 transport planes so as to quickly transport soldiers from Jiuquan towards Urumqi”, notes the Chinese account.
On October 14, supported by a tank regiment, the main forces of 4 and 5 Division of the 2 Army reached Hami in Northern Xinjiang. They then took a southward turn and ten days later, the 4 Division ‘liberated’ Yanchi, where the troops stayed a couple of weeks to recover from the quick march. By that time, the 400 motor vehicles given by the Soviets had all collapsed… in any case there was no fuel anymore. To complete their advance towards Kashgar, the troops…to walk more than 1,000km in one month.
The Chinese records say: “The main force, in more than two months’ time, successively liberated each important town and city in the north and south of Xinjiang, pinned down uprising launched by reactionaries of Nationalist Party at many.” Marshal Peng Dehuai and Xi Zhongxun (Xi Jinping’s father) praised the troops in a telegram: “You have created an unprecedented record of the advance of forces.” Strategically, communist China was at the Gate of Tibet — and, of India. Soon, construction across Indian territory in the Aksai Chin area would start.
Nearly 70 years later, one understands the enormous importance of the annexation of Xinjiang with its natural resources such as oil, but also the trade routes such as the One Belt One Road initiative or the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. But in the process, Mao had forgotten his promises to give autonomy to Xinjiang; this probably explains China’s present difficulties.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations and an author)
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