The rapidly expanding Russian Empire in Central Asia had reached the northwestern borders of the Qing (Ch’ing) Empire of China by the mid-19th century. Xinjiang (Sinkiang), as northwestern China is called, was mainly inhabited by Turkic speaking Muslims, who chafed under Manchu banner troops stationed in the region. A Muslim revolt broke out in Xinjiang in 1864, led by an adventurer from Khokand named Yakub Beg, who proclaimed himself ruler of Kashgaria and part of northern Xinjiang.
This revolt gave Russia the opportunity to intervene. Fearful of Russian ambitions and anxious to protect its interests in India, Great Britain also became involved. This struggle for mastery of Central Asia and northwestern China was called the “Great Game.” Both powers saw Yakub Beg as a useful tool.
First the governor-general of Russian Turkestan, General K. P. von Kaufman, sent troops that occupied the Ili Valley, Ili city, and the main Chinese fort in Xinjiang and signed a treaty with Yakub Beg that granted Russia many privileges in the region. Not to be outdone, Britain also recognized Yakub Beg’s power in Xinjiang and gave him assistance.
The Chinese government could do nothing in Xinjiang until it had suppressed the other rebellions in the country. In 1875 it appointed Zho Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang), the great general-statesman who had played a major role in putting down the other revolts, commander of a force against the Xinjiang rebels. By 1877 Yakub Beg had been soundly defeated and driven to suicide; the rebellion soon collapsed.
Ili, however, remained under Russian occupation. The Qing court appointed a Manchu nobleman Chonghou (Chung-hou) special ambassador to Russia to negotiate its restoration to China. Inexperienced and unprepared, Chonghou signed the Treaty of Livadia without authorization that ceded 70 percent of the Ili region, including strategic mountain passes, to Russia, agreed to pay Russia a huge indemnity, and other concessions.
The Qing government refused to accept this disastrous treaty and sentenced Chonghou to death (due to strong protests by Western government the sentence was left pending the outcome of the renewed negotiations). China then appointed Zeng Jize (Tseng Chi-tse, known as Marquis Zeng in the West), son of the great statesman Zeng Guofan (Tseng Kuofan) and then minister to Britain and France, special ambassador to Russia to renegotiate the treaty.
An able and well-prepared diplomat, Zeng secured the secret assistance of Great Britain before embarking on the difficult negotiations with the Russians, which culminated in the Treaty of St. Petersburg in 1881. By its terms, almost all the Ili Valley, including the strategic passes, were returned to China, and the number of Russian consulates in the region was reduced, but China did pay an indemnity to Russia.
The Treaty of St. Petersburg reversed the disastrous Treaty of Livadia. The reconquest of Xinjiang and the treaty of St. Petersburg were rare instances of Chinese victory during the late Qing dynasty and were principally due to two men, Zho Zongtang and Zeng Jize. Xinjiang was made into a province in 1884.