The Collapse of Empire and the Transformation of Frontier Elite Politics: State-Building in the Greater Xinjiang Region, 1911–1919

Zikui Wei, The University of Chicago

Studies of empire mostly focus on the transition from “empire” to “nation-state” with the emergence of nationalism as its master process. Little attention was paid to other aspects of imperial collapse and the specific political order that resulted. This paper focuses on state-building in Qing-China’s northwestern frontier (Xinjiang) during the 1910s and explores how the collapse of empire could contribute to frontier state-building in the absence of large-scale military conflict. When the Qing empire collapsed in 1911, there were four states in its northwestern frontier. In 1919, there was only one. I seek to explain: Why state-building was possible and deemed necessary by frontier elites? Why state-building was achieved without large-scale military competition? How and why the specific patterns and timings of state-building differed? I argue that both the legacies of empire and the changes brought by the imperial collapse help to explain these puzzles. The changing relations among frontier militaries came to define the broader contour of frontier elite politics. The collapse of empire entails, first, the changing political geography in and around the greater Xinjiang region. It left the region with four independent state units, and the succession of Mongolia presented this region, and Altay in particular, with persistent external military threat. Second, it changed the fiscal situation of the local states and the mode of center-periphery interaction. With the halt of interprovincial assistance, the local elites were forced to think twice before building up their military. The nominal authorities that the central state had over the local ones left ample room for new interpretations and maneuvering by frontier elites. Third, political events accompanying the collapse of empire changed the stakes of frontier elite competition. It created a condition in which state elites came to see their own political survival as fundamentally conflictual with one another.

See extended abstract

 Presented in Session 116. Regions of State Formation