A follow-up on Qing Westward Expansion/Paralysis in (now) Xinjiang/Huijiang
At least until 1949, neglect/underdevelopment of the Islamic “West” – Gansu, Qinghai, Ningxia, and of course Xinjiang – was never to draw the attention of “nation-builders” to the extent that the Northeast (Liaodong/-Ning, Harbin, Suiyuan, Jehol) or the China Seas vulnerability issues, did from the 19th century onward, but precisely because of that, the scramble for a rebalancing strategy has been more intense and globally high-profile even than in Tibet, with secessionism more of a threat here than anywhere else around the imperial rim, and extracting a tax in the form of hi-cost but almost unusable military preparedness that is both a financial and diplomatic burden bigger than that carried anywhere else.
Martin Andrew, “Guarding the West: China’s New Mechanized Infantry Division” for the special military buildup
China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 10 May 16, 2007)
In deeper historical context, the problem here has been the cultural bivocalism of the E Mongolia-to-Pamirs climate/eco-belt that runs all the way across the upper rim of Sinitic or even Mongol empire. It is oasis-pastoral, desert country end to end, religion Buddhism, which linked it at the east to Manchu Beijing and the West to Buddhist “teacher”-state Tibet to the Southwest. But that homogeneity was snapped by the end-10th century conversion of the peoples (rulers) of the western Taklamakan oases, centered on Kashgar, to Islam (Gladney, 213) – in the long view a reiteration of the fracture of the Mongol khanates into proselytes of that very same religion as they spread across Central Asia after their “loss” of China. Unity of church and state were not only lost (under the Qing, “house” Mongols remained Lamaist Buddhists), but the quondam expansion or at least defense-in-depth E-W or W-E homoecological corridor became impossible; worse still, after after Islamic (Dzungar) rebellion at the Western end had been at last suppressed in the 1870s, the Soviet ethno-politics of the Lenin years inspired (via infrastructure and trade) an asymmetrical WW-E linkage of this part of the “West” to the Moslem Republics of the 1920s: Kyrgyzstan,
Kazakhstan, even Uzbekistan. Road and rail links had by the 30s tied this very un-Chinese extremity of “China” more closely to Moscow than to Beijing/Nanjing, which had not even gotten much “west” of Baotou (now Inner Mongolia), and would not resume a Westward demarche until the PRC started the Baotou-Lanzhou-Chengdu-Urumqi road then rail linkup in the mid-1950s. During WWII, Russia could transfer military supplies (and patronage) by rail-then-air link to Urumqi as well as Chengdu in support of patronized militarists, while China’s two (or three or four) governments could get no further “west” than Chungking.
But the de facto pullback (with attendant costs) from the “Islamic” west was not confined to “Uighur”-stan (my term).
It left as well an unpoliced, feudatory regime (or bi-regime) in the nominally “province-level” agglomerate(s) of Gansu, Ningxia, and Qinghai (Sikang), where Muslim warlords (Ma Qi and sons Ma Fuxiang and Ma Buxiang – not including Ma Fuxiang in Suiyuan) which were so far beyond “Chinese” authority that they became something akin to what Afghanistan would be to British then Russian empires: refractory treaty-uncertain margins where the climate (still that of the EW corridor) was perfect for opium oases, the latter thus becoming the main source of Muslim warlord military self-support and the currency for weapons acquisition. No doubt with links that were in end useful for the Yenan mini-state, in that they drew all the players into one common pool of smuggling and at least something like laissez faire, save when (as during the Long March), fleeing Red Army columns detoured to drive through Muslim (Ma Bros.) controlled Qinghai, just at the southernmost flank of the E-W “Ordos” corridor.
For the first time since the Song, the China-ensconced imperial center lost control entirely of the Western (Inner Asian-connected) reaches of this its one homo-longitudinal “horizontal” strip. And, worse still, at both ends: as the Japanese pushed (though not altogether successfully) into E. Mongolia to squeeze out the Zhang father-son team from its seat in that same corner; and as at the same, very worst of times, a phalanx of Muslim defectors from the Han Republic opened the Western end of the corridor to cross-Pamir pilgrimage and arms flows in both directions. It was everything that Qianlong had feared, and ensured that the PRC/PLA would have the Devil’s own time in (still incompletely, culturally) reclaiming it.
Even as recently as 2010, though adjunction back into the Imperium has nominally returned, ethnic separatism (mainly Muslim) still thrives in this homo-climatic belt; Han colonization has been pushed but has not lifted area food productivity anywhere near the national average not to mention median (80 Metric Tons/sq km). Four of the five agriculturally sub-par (food-undersupplied) provincial units in the “Qing-Ning-Gan” corridor abut the Gobi, while Qinghai has its own special form of soil infertility, and has never (to this day) been anything but pastoral.
Map XX: Geo-Distribution of Three Major Cereals Yields (Rice, Wheat, Maize) (MT/km^2) – from http://circleofblue.org/china-grains.html
Map XXX Distribution of Crop Mixes and of Aggregate Yields/Surface Unit
(U.S. Central Intelligence Agency) – Map No. 800635 (544061) 5-86