Soviet Archives reveal China’s occupation of East Turkistan

On May 4, 2020, the Wilson Center published a series of English translations of recently uncovered Soviet documents involving East Turkistan from the period 1944-1949. The documents revealed how the Soviet Union initially supported the East Turkistan Republic in 1944 and later helped the newly established People’s Republic of China invade and overthrow it in 1949.

On May 4, 1943, the VKP(B) CC Politburo adopted a secret decree titled “On Xinjiang.” The decree stated that the Soviet Union could no longer “tolerate” the oppressive Chinese Governor of East Turkistan (“Xinjiang”), Sheng Shicai, and that the USSR should support non-Chinese rebels “in their struggle against the repressive colonialist policy of the Governor.” 

With pressure from the Soviet Union, the East Turkistan Republic entered into an agreement with the Chinese government on June 6, 1946. However, the Soviet Union soon believed that the Republic of China was not in compliance with the treaty, and tried to resolve the complicated situation in East Turkistan twice, in February and again in September of 1947.

Among the recently revealed documents in Soviet Archives included directives approved by Stalin  ordering Major-General Yegnarov and a group of Soviet officers to be sent to the Ili District in the East Turkistan Republic to organize the East Turkistani’ combat operations against the Chinese Army. The Russian State Archives also contain several letters to Stalin from Alihan Tore Shakirjan, the President of East Turkistan Republic.

By 1949, the Soviets had largely reversed their position on supporting East Turkistan and started holding high level meetings with Chinese Communists. On February 4, 1949, the Soviets denied having supported the East Turkistan Republic in a meeting between Mao Zedong and Antastas Mikoyan, the Vice Premier of the Soviet Council of Ministers. Mao stated he had heard there was an independence movement and communist party in East Turkistan to which Mikoyan responded that there is a national movement but no communist party. Two days later, in another meeting with Mikoyan, Mao stated his intentions to invade and occupy East Turkistan by 1951.

On June 27, 1949, Stalin met with a Chinese Communist Party delegation where he stated that the CCP should not put off the occupation of East Turkistan, “because a delay may lead to British interference” in East Turkistan. Stalin also told the CCP delegation that the Chinese population is less than 5% of the total population in East Turkistan, he urged the CCP to colonize East Turkistan and raise the Chinese population to at least 30%.

On August 24, 1949 the President and Foreign Minister of the East Turkistan Republic along with the Commander and Deputy Commander of the East Turkistan National Army along with other high ranking officials of the East Turkistan Republic boarded a plane to Moscow, according to East Turkistan’s records. However it was reported by the Soviets that on September 2, 1949 that their plane had crashed in Irkutsk on route to Beijing and that all 14 people on board had been killed.

On September 27, 1949, Mao sent a telegram pleading to Stalin to assist him providing air transport for part of the PLA’s 500,000 troops that were tasked with invading and occupying East Turkistan. Mao stated that if he didn’t recieve the needed assistance, he would have to delay until March – April 1950 which would prove disastrous for Mao.

On October 1, 1949 following the proclamation of the “People’s Republic of China” in Beijing, Mao order his troops in Gansu to start marching towards East Turkistan. On October 12, 1949, the Chinese invaded East Turkistan and by November had seized much of northeastern East Turkistan. In late December 1949, the PLA marched into Ghulja, the capital of the East Turkistan Republic.

On December 22, 1949, the East Turkistan National Army was forcibly incorporated into the PLA’s 5th Army Corp, which led to the CCP’s formal overthrow of the East Turkistan Republic and the loss of East Turkistan’s independence.