A Mission to Moscow?

As spring 1919 turned to summer, White rule in East Siberia and the Russian Far East reached its nine-month mark. Yet Kolchak’s regime in Omsk presided over this territory only nominally. Vladivostok, nerve centre of the Allied intervention, maintained an uneasy balance between its Russian administration and the interests of foreign troops. Parts of the Transbaikal and Amur regions were under the control of anti-Bolshevik warlords – the notorious atamans Semenov and Kalmykov – whose dependence on the Japanese army allowed them to misgovern their fiefdoms with impunity. Their depredations on local and migrant communities provoked a burgeoning partisan movement and deep misgivings on the part of Chinese border officials. Even Omsk itself came in for Allied criticism despite its early successes on the battlefield against the Bolsheviks. By this stage, therefore, the prospect of a Japanese-backed, anti-Bolshevik Russian neighbour was becoming increasingly unpalatable to the Chinese authorities.

The failures of the Whites were matched by the Reds’ growing presence and assertiveness towards China. Already in March, the Bolsheviks had established the Third International with two Chinese delegates in attendance. Rumours were rife that the Reds were sending agents to China, from returning wartime workers to Uyghur propagandists. Far more appealing to Chinese officialdom was the Bolshevik promise, first delivered in February 1918, that they would repudiate all imperialist rights and privileges in China. As the Red Army began to turn the military tide against Kolchak’s forces, Lenin’s government increasingly appeared as a force to be reckoned with. The evacuation of the Chinese embassy and blackout in direct communications with European Russia undermined Beijing’s attempts to obtain first-hand information about the Bolsheviks. Reports on the situation in Moscow were thus eagerly sought and shared, as the following memorandum showed. Many of the toponyms are unrecognisable in the Chinese rendering.

“The Turning Point of the Civil War, March-June 1919”. N.D. Kazantsev, 1928. Source.



According to a telegram from China’s chief of staff in Primor’e Yu Yuxi and others, based on a secret report from the Czechoslovak army on the Moscow government, an agent should be quickly and secretly sent there for political activity. Apart from conveying this to the State Council, the telegram is copied here for your consideration.

Copy of 18 April Harbin telegram from chief of staff Yu Yuxi, staff officer Fu Xin etc.
A secret report has been received from an agent deployed by the Czechoslovak army in Cheliabinsk. It roughly contains several points. 1. The Moscow government has three leaders, Lenin, Trotsky and Sverdlov; among them Trotsky is the most popular, he has expressed sympathy towards the Reds in Germany. 2. The Moscow government considers the Russian Revolution to have worldwide significance akin to the New Testament, and firmly believes that the Allies will soon recognise its regime. 3. Concerning the Reds’ underground associations in Siberia, they are all under Trotsky’s personal command and are centred on Omsk. Their methods of choice are inciting the people and disrupting transport. 4. The Reds are currently planning to recapture Perm, using coercive methods to maintain army unity. They now have 200,000 soldiers and 5,000 officers, however military discipline is lax and they are no match for the Allied forces. 5. The Reds have occupied the areas of Woerka [Volga?] city, Wukunayinuo town and Duoyin [?]. Only then are they able to gather food supplies so as to march on Chistopol and Wuwohanya [?], recapturing the Orenburg railway. The transport of clothing and raw materials is thus extremely expedient, while coal and fuel are ample in Duoyin. The railway is being improved in stages and the Reds’ position is gradually improving. 6. Regarding the financial situation, gold extraction in the various prefectures, provinces and counties is improving and there will also be good results. 7. The Chinese soldiers among the Reds have fought more bravely than the rest, which has astonished others. 8. An Allied Communist Committee has been established in Moscow. The Japanese government is secretly assisting with individuals’ expenses, instructing them to go and take up positions in this Committee. 9. Summarising the above circumstances and observing the situation in Vladivostok, the most critical thing at this time is for our country to quickly send an agent to Moscow for political activity, so that some privileges may be obtained from them in Europe or Asia. As for the Whites in eastern Russia, considering the diplomatic and other activities of their ilk towards our country, one fears we will not benefit from them.

Letter from the War Participation Bureau, 29 April 1919. Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2) Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, p. 204.
“Forward, in defence of the Urals!” Bolshevik poster by Alexander Apsit, 1919, Source.

The conclusions drawn from the Czechoslovak report were stark, especially considering that Kolchak’s armies were still at their high-water mark in April. It touched on the most critical developments to date: The Bolsheviks’ military and financial capabilities, their attempts to spread their ideology through the Comintern, even their recruitment of Chinese troops. Doubts about the Red Army’s discipline notwithstanding, it seemed that Lenin’s government would not be vanquished any time soon. Hence the War Participation Bureau – a top-level organ headed by premier Duan Qirui, formed initially to direct China’s participation in WWI  – made a radical proposal: China should shift its support from the Whites to the Reds. An envoy should be sent to Moscow behind the Allies’ backs to parlay with the Bolsheviks. The Bureau followed this up two weeks later with a damning indictment of Omsk’s many weaknesses. It would only be a matter of time before the Allies switched sides, this second memorandum said; China risked falling behind if it remained committed to the Whites.

It would be another year before such an envoy was sent, but these memoranda represented the first stirrings of a shift in Chinese policy. Up until now, Beijing had aligned itself with the Allied diplomatic position and would mostly continue to do so for the rest of the Russian Civil War. Civilian diplomats continued to report on the Allies’ tentative moves towards recognising the Omsk regime and recommended that China follow suit. However, this stance was increasingly tempered by an impatience with the White movement and a willingness to send feelers out to the Reds. This would only gain momentum as the Red Army made good on the Bureau’s predictions in the summer and autumn of 1919.

Kolchak’s troops in retreat, 1919. Source.

Furthermore, the Bureau’s memoranda mirrored more far-reaching shifts in Chinese civil society in April-May 1919. China’s failure to reclaim the German concession of Shandong at the Paris Peace Conference was perceived as a betrayal by the Allies. It resulted in a wave of popular protest – the May 4th Movement – as well as growing disillusionment with the imperialism of the liberal-democratic Great Powers. Interest in Bolshevik ideology and the Russian regime that embodied it intensified after May 4th, culminating in the formation of Marxist study groups and the publication of leftist literature. Even as the War Participation Bureau spoke of a diplomatic turn towards Moscow, a similar reorientation of a more intellectual kind was taking place among some Chinese intellectuals – a process aided by Red missionaries from Moscow, who would soon be arriving in China later in the year.

Popular Resentment in Primor’e

In previous posts, we saw how White misgovernment antagonised both Russian and Chinese populations in Transbaikalia and the Amur region; in the latter case, it resulted in a burgeoning partisan movement that had to be suppressed by the Japanese army. The Maritime Province was no exception. A combination of forced mobilisation – announced by the Omsk government in mid-February 1919 – and the excesses of anti-Bolshevik warlords led to a wave of popular resistance in the spring. By April, partisan activity had grown particularly marked in the Suchan region (later aptly renamed Partizansk), with its strategically important coal mines. A key target was the railway linking Suchan to Vladivostok, which passed through the town of Shkotovo.

Partisans in Suchan (today Partizansk), c. 1924. Source.

One particularly daring attack took place on 11 April, when Shkotovo came under fire from partisans seeking to free Bolshevik prisoners held by the town’s White garrison. The Allied high command promptly dispatched a 1,000-strong multinational force to quell the insurgency and protect the railway. Upon its arrival, however, it found that the partisans had melted away into the countryside. General William Graves, commander of the American forces in Siberia, went so far as to consider the Shkotovo affair a Japanese plot to force him to abandon the principle of non-interference and act against the Bolsheviks. The futility of the April expedition, coupled with the sheer incredulity at facing outright rebellion just 30 miles from the Allied headquarters in Vladivostok, prompted a reassessment of Kolchak’s regime.



Recently, because the officials appointed by the Omsk government have misgoverned wilfully and recklessly, with extortion and coercion, the people’s anger has reached boiling point. The Reds have taken this opportunity to agitate among the people, saying that the government is corrupt; [?] this has affected the areas near the Trans-Siberian Railway, with villagers rising up repeatedly in revolt. In the Shkotovka River area 200 li [sic; Liu uses “Qimenghe”, the Chinese toponym for the area] from Vladivostok, there was a large number of disturbances, signs pointed to great turbulence. This was also a Red initiative and the Allies have gone there to suppress it. According to reports from various sources, the undercurrents of this matter run very deep and there is even a rumour that there will be an alliance with the railway union to launch a general strike as a show of resistance.

View of the barracks at Shkotovo, 1919. From the Eric Elkington collection. Source.

The diplomatic corps regarded these events as having a political nature, hence the various representatives gathered at the British consulate for an unofficial discussion and to exchange views, which would be presented to their governments for consideration. The following was agreed. Observing the current situation in Siberia, if it were to continue for long, it would be a great hindrance to transport. The people’s anger stems first from the restorationist party’s support for the Kolchak government. Second, from the attempt to implement forced mobilisation. Third, from the officials appointed by Kolchak and their violation of the people’s will. Fourth, from the interference in the zemstvo, the various associations and the labour movement. Fifth, from the prohibition against organising the Siberian bank. The duma government’s grievances lie in the Socialist Revolutionary Party’s anti-government propaganda. This situation has caused the ruble to lose its stability and thwarted the Allies’ plan to help Russia unite. It has given the Reds a golden opportunity to carry out agitation among peasant societies, earning the enmity of both governors and governed. Hence the following peaceful solutions were proposed. 1. To ask the Omsk government to take a broadly liberal approach to popular associations, so as to gain credibility with the lower sectors of society. 2. To render financial aid. 3. To swiftly and effectively develop industry and revive the people’s livelihoods. 4. To reform financial administration. 5. To require the Omsk government to assemble an organisation representative of the people’s will, so that the population will be able to convey their opinions. This was agreed, but the political views of the various governments towards Russia differ. One cannot predict if they will act in unison. For your consideration.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 23 April 1919 (sent 21 April). Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, p. 193.
Bridge destroyed by partisans near Shkotovo, July 1919. Source.

As we have seen, Kolchak’s authority did not effectively extend into East Siberia and the Russian Far East. This hands-off approach allowed his appointed officials – such as S.N. Rozanov and P.P. Ivanov-Rinov – to terrorise the local population in the name of enforcing the draft or of rooting out Bolsheviks. Worse still, he had become tainted by his association with Japanese-sponsored White warlords such as Semenov and Kalmykov, who surpassed Kolchak’s men in brutality. Even more insidious was the Omsk regime’s prejudice against representative institutions, most of which were dominated by moderate Socialist Revolutionaries. When the Far Eastern Congress of Zemstvos and Municipal Dumas strayed into political discussions in January and February 1919, many of its participants were arrested and deported by Ivanov-Rinov. With Allied leaders such as President Wilson championing the spirit of democracy at the Paris Peace Conference, they could hardly approve of Omsk’s authoritarian tendencies and its unsavoury Far Eastern confederates.

This took the shine off Omsk’s military successes in March and April 1919, when its armies advanced rapidly into the Urals, captured Ufa and began marching on the Volga. One immediate impact was the failure of the draft in the Russian Far East: Less than half of the quota was eventually mobilised, and some historians have attributed Kolchak’s military defeat partly to the resulting lack of manpower as the campaign dragged on into the summer months. Equally serious was the western Allies’ continued ambivalence towards the Omsk government. As much as they may have lauded Kolchak’s successes on the battlefield, official recognition of his government – and hence more reliable access to Allied diplomatic and material aid – also depended on its political stance. Mirroring the five points enumerated by Liu, the Allies sent an official request to Kolchak on 26 May to clarify his politics and adhere to “democratic principles”. He would have to convene a Constituent Assembly after defeating the Bolsheviks, permit free and fair elections in areas under his control, and recognise the independence of Poland and Finland.

Liu’s concluding note of scepticism was nonetheless well-deserved, for the Allies were not completely united in their attitude towards Kolchak. The British were far more positive about his regime than the Americans were, while Japan’s hostility towards him had nothing to do with democratic principles. Furthermore, had Kolchak’s military victories outlasted the first heady months of spring 1919, the Allies might well have overlooked his illiberal politics and given Omsk the official recognition it craved. Less than two months after Liu’s telegram, however, the tide would turn against the armies of White Siberia, leaving Allied policy towards Kolchak as inconclusive as ever.

Consular Misdeeds in Ili

In a previous post, we saw how the fighting between Reds and Whites in Semirech’e sent waves of refugees – and “refugee warriors” – into Xinjiang. Those fleeing the violence included not only ethnic Russians, but also Uyghurs, Dungans and Kazaks who held Russian citizenship. Building on his experiences of the 1916 Central Asian Uprising, Xinjiang governor Yang Zengxin adopted China’s official approach to such escapees: Civilians should be temporarily settled, while soldiers should be disarmed before they were allowed in. Requests for extradition were to be denied.

The Russian consulate in Ghulja (Yining), 1907. Probably from the Mannerheim expedition. Source.

Such a policy was difficult enough to implement, given Xinjiang’s porous and sparsely-manned border. It put a strain on local resources and threatened to destabilise the province’s ethnic equilibrium, which Yang had spent his entire career engineering. Adding yet another spanner in the works, however, were the province’s Russian consuls. Their appointments pre-dated the 1917 revolutions and their sympathies lay largely with the anti-Bolshevik movement. Since China had not officially recognised the new Soviet government, it continued to work with these consuls despite repeated requests from the Reds to dismiss or extradite them. When a consular guard was suspected of harbouring Bolshevik sympathies, local officials replaced them with Chinese troops at the consul’s request. This allowed the consuls to act as brokers for the White movement.






On 15 April, a telegram from Ili circuit intendant Xu [Guozhen] read:

‘On the Russian consul [V.F.] Liuba handling matters obstinately and high-handedly, this has been reported on by the circuit intendant and there is no need to belabour the point. However, recently the consul has recruited several hundred refugee Russian Uyghurs, conducting daily drills and saying that this is in preparation for a strike on the Reds in Zharkent. The news has spread and there is a rumour that Reds have resolved to pre-emptively attack the consul and eliminate these refugee Uyghurs. If our troops block them and prevent them from entering the border, they will certainly open hostilities with us first. Indeed, the arbitrary and foolhardy actions of the Russian consul alone has caused Ili’s border situation to be undermined. This is an unintended and unwelcome development. I consider that the refugee Uyghurs recruited by the consul are no more than a group of jobless vagrants, who only want some food for the moment. They have no calibre to speak of. The consul’s intentions are also no more than to make use of them to expand his illusory power. He must know that they will be of no real use apart from attracting immense, immediate and genuine disaster, and bringing anxiety to our local populations. Thinking the matter over, rather than bring imminent conflict to Xinjiang, it would be better to disperse the refugee Uyghurs who were recruited by the consul. Moreover, the training of troops in Chinese territory by Russians has never been stipulated in the treaties but, if we dispute the matter with the consul based on the treaties alone, he will certainly not comply. If we do not increase our resolve, he will not abide by our terms. I humbly request that the military governor instruct both the defence commissioner [Yang Feixia] and myself to negotiate with the consul and pre-emptively disperse the refugees by force of arms, to maintain border security. As for whether this appropriate, I present this for your consideration.’

I have wired a response, which reads:

‘Wire of the 10th from circuit intendant Xu received and read on the 15th. On Liuba’s recruitment of Uyghurs fleeing from Russia for military service, the circuit intendant should make strong representations to the Russian consul, with troops deployed to escort [the Uyghurs] back to Russia. He is not to recruit soldiers and conduct drills in Ili, such that the Reds and Whites will both turn Ili into a battlefield, undermining border security. Please comply. Apart from wiring the government, I am sending this response.’

I consider that all of consul Liuba’s activities in Ili are indeed an impediment to border security. Besides instructing both civilian and military officials in Ili to be on strict guard, I am presenting this for your consideration and counsel.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 30 April 1919 (sent 17 April). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang, pp. 191-192.
A Dungan mosque in Ghulja. From the 13 December 1943 edition of Life magazine. Source.

Ili consul Liuba was particularly irksome to the Chinese authorities. Prior to his posting in Xinjiang, he had served in Mongolia and been involved in the intrigues surrounding Mongolian independence from the Qing empire in 1911. Following the November Revolution, the Bolsheviks in Semirech’e called for his removal, eventually going so far as to threaten military action if the Chinese did not comply. In the absence of firm instructions from Beijing, however, Yang retained him and provided him with a Chinese guard. Liuba promptly became embroiled in disputes with Ili officials over the latter’s alleged food-for-opium deals with the Reds, his authority to conduct searches on Chinese citizens, shipments of weapons for the Whites, and the disarming of escapee White soldiers. By March 1919, both Yang and the Beijing government had gone so far as to ask Russian ambassador Kudashev to replace him. The recruitment of refugee Uyghurs brought tensions to a new level, with Beijing sanctioning his expulsion if necessary.

Kudashev was himself partial to the Whites. Not only did he have no intention of censuring Liuba, he requested that Beijing permit the enlistment of entire brigades in Ili. In August, therefore, Liuba was still putting up notices in Ghulja openly calling for recruits, including among the city’s Muslims who were Russian citizens. Yang responded by appealing to the memory of the Central Asian Uprising, when the tsarist army’s attempts to draft Muslims had resulted in a bloody rebellion. Liuba’s insubordination threatened to transplant the Uprising to Chinese territory, and Muslim communities in Ili were already showing signs of resistance. A concerted effort by civilian and military officials in Ili finally put a stop to the recruitment, at least among Russian Muslims.

Chinese soldiers near Kashgar, 1906. From the Mannerheim expedition. Source.

Nevertheless, Liuba was not alone in his machinations. The Russian consuls in Tarbagatai, Kashgar and Urumqi all acted on behalf of the Whites to varying degrees, including aiding in weapons procurement, drafting and assembling recruits, sheltering “refugee warriors”such as Dutov and Annenkov, or securing passage through Xinjiang from one front to another. It raises interesting questions about the independence and activism of Russian diplomats during this period, as well as their relationships with the diverse Russian diasporic community, some of whom may have interpreted their interests very differently. In Persia, for example, where Russian consuls had gained significant power and independence following the occupation of Persian territories in 1911, relations between them and their charges soured rapidly after the March Revolution. Anti-consular rhetoric then became a potential bridge between Russian revolutionaries and Iranians. Xinjiang, of course, did not have the same tradition of constitutional struggle or an ongoing Russian occupation as Persia did during this period. But, as a subsequent post will show, disaffection with Russia’s consuls would eventually reach a stage where some Muslim representatives no longer considered them effective guardians – and contemplated abandoning Russian citizenship altogether.

A Red Conference in Shanghai?

In a previous post, we looked at how British and Russian diplomats warned Beijing as early as January 1918 about Bolshevik plans to send provocateurs to China. The Foreign Ministry immediately alerted the governors of the Sino-Russian border provinces, as well as officials in regions with a sizeable foreign presence. However, the Soviet government was at the time more focused on the prospects of a revolution in Europe and on fending off a German offensive. Apart from a few anti-imperial promises directed unofficially to the Chinese embassy, the Bolsheviks had no active policy towards China in those early days.

Things had changed radically by the early months of 1919. The hoped-for German revolution culminated in a social democratic government and pitched battles between left- and right-wing militias. In Hungary, Bela Kun was poised on the brink of a coup. Communists in Poland and Ukraine faced an uncertain future as war broke out with Soviet Russia. Relations between communists in European Russia and those in the former imperial periphery had to be clarified. And in Paris, the Great Powers were assembling to redefine the world order. Even in the midst of the Russian Civil War, the international communist movement was in need of strategic direction and ideological guidance – with Lenin’s government providing the leadership.

Delegates at the First Comintern Congress, 1919. Liu Zerong is the third man to the left of the flag. Source.

Accordingly, on 2-6 March 1919, a new, Third International was inaugurated in Moscow. While its focus was still chiefly on the communist parties in Western Europe and America, it included two Chinese delegates: Liu Zerong (alias Liu Shaozhou in Mandarin or Lau Siu-zao in Cantonese), whom we have already encountered as chairman of the Association of Chinese Diaspora in Russia, and fellow Association leader Zhang Yongkui. Both men represented the Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party, a group formed solely for the Congress; Liu’s short speech was not even included in the official minutes. Yet the revival of the International – and the participation of Chinese and Korean representatives – triggered another flurry of concern in Beijing, this time of a Bolshevik meeting in Shanghai.


According to a confidential message from the diplomatic corps, the Russian Reds will hold a meeting on the 22nd in Shanghai. Red leaders from Moscow and Siberia will all be present. Topics to be discussed: 1. To cause disorder in Siberia this spring; 2. Various activities in China, Japan, as well as Europe and America; 3. Alliances with the German and Polish Reds. Also, according to the reports, this information is accurate and reliable. This should be swiftly investigated and stopped; wire a reply.

Telegram to the Shanghai defence commissioner and envoy, 21 March 1919. Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, p. 112.

Such warnings capped off several months of what seemed like an escalating threat, first from provocateurs in Xinjiang and then among returning Chinese workers. This time, however, the threat had reached the Chinese heartland. On 26 March, Russian ambassador Kudashev informed the Foreign Ministry that the Reds were agitating in Beijing and Tianjin as well as Shanghai. Kudashev recommended more stringent measures, including the inspection of hotel registers. These were echoed by the Shanghai authorities.

Mao Zedong (seventh from left) in Shanghai in 1920, with members of the New Citizens’ Association (Xinmin xuehui). According to biographers, Mao’s first visit to Shanghai was in March 1919, to see off students going to France for the work-study movement. Source.



Your Ministry’s telegram of the 21st received and read on the 22nd. An investigation was ordered; there has indeed been news that the Russian Reds are sending party members to Shanghai in groups, with the aim of colluding with Chinese and Japanese to act in concert. It is said that each group comprises four people and two groups have already set out, but not yet reached Shanghai. This matter is crucial and must be strictly prohibited. The British police station is also paying close attention now and sent a representative to my office yesterday to discuss this. It was agreed to deal with this jointly. All Russians now residing in the concessions and Chinese sector will be inspected by the [British] station and [Chinese] police department respectively, as a suitable precaution. Regarding Russians coming from outside, their passports will be checked and they will be closely questioned to prevent the Reds from slipping in. As for the method of implementation, all ships coming to Shanghai from Dalian and Vladivostok will be inspected by the station. My office will deploy military police which, together with police officers, will be stationed at and inspect the Shanghai-Nanjing train stations. We have instructed that this be implemented in the next few days.

However, when taking trains to the interior, the Reds must pass through the Chinese Eastern Railway. It is urgently necessary to inform the stations on that line that, when Russians purchase tickets, their passports should be inspected first and they should be closely questioned on their backgrounds and reasons for travel. If they have no passports or behave suspiciously, the tickets must not be sold, in order to prevent their journey. Other railways such as the Peking-Mukden, Tianjin-Pukou, Qingdao-Jinan and Peking-Hankow should also adopt such measures, in the interests of thoroughness. Please convey this quickly to the Communications Ministry, so that it may wire the railway bureaux to implement them. I would also be very grateful for a response. Also, I have just received the State Council’s telegram of the 18th on the Reds repatriating Chinese workers to cause disorder. Both the military and police have been instructed to pay attention to this, gather information and take precautions.

Telegram from Shanghai defence commissioner Lu Yongxiang, 1 April 1919. Ibid., pp. 133-134.
Members of the Chinese Socialist Youth League’s Foreign Languages Study Association in Shanghai, 1920. The League’s founder, Yu Xiusong, is in the middle of the back row. Source.

But was there indeed such a meeting in the works? The Bolsheviks certainly maintained an underground network in Harbin, but with the Civil War still raging it is doubtful that a systematic effort to send delegates to the Chinese heartland existed as early as March 1919. According to Ishikawa Yoshihiro, although a small number of radical socialists were active in Shanghai in 1918-1919, the first Bolshevik agents – A.S. Potapov and, most notably, G.N. Voitinskii – only arrived in China from late 1919 onwards. Neither did the Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party led by Liu and Zhang send representatives to China, despite its presence at the Comintern Congress. Finally, Liu Jianyi cites British records showing that four Russian provocateurs arrived in Shanghai in April 1919, but it seems that no formal conference occurred. Only two of the four became active propagandists, and then only after Voitinskii’s arrival.

In fact, it was Chinese intellectuals, not Russian provocateurs, whom the authorities had to fear. Li Dazhao, the “Father of Chinese Marxism”, had already written about the Victory of Bolshevism in November 1918; beginning in February 1919, Marxist ideas were being translated and disseminated in the Beijing newspaper Chenbao. The ongoing work-study movement, of which Shanghai was a centre, also became a seedbed for future Chinese communists. This nascent interest in Marxism would soar after the May 4th movement, and Potapov and Voitinskii would find an audience already receptive to Bolshevik ideas.

A Snapshot of the Chita Community, 1918

The 1917 revolutions and Civil War were a time of unprecedented upheaval for the Chinese diaspora in Russia, paralleled perhaps only by the massacre at Blagoveshchensk during the Boxer Rebellion. Wartime workers were stranded in European Russia, while in Siberia and the Russian Far East migrants became collateral damage in the fighting between Reds, Whites and Allied interventionists. When White leaders came to power in autumn 1918, the Chinese community became a target for robbery and murder in the ensuing atamanshchina.

As far as they were able, Chinese diplomats, border officials and civic organisations attempted to keep track of the community’s losses. This was a tall order. By 1917, China had only been permitted to establish consulates in Vladivostok and Irkutsk, leaving vast swathes of the diaspora without easy access to consular representation. Civic actors – mainly chambers of commerce in the Russian Far East, or Chinese-sponsorsed aqsaqals in Semirech’e – stepped in to fill the gap, although their reach among non-mercantile segments of the diaspora could be limited. Border officials sometimes commissioned their own investigations, although this depended on personal initiative. Despite all these constraints, however, the accounts produced offer a snapshot into the Chinese community, as the following report shows.

Bazaar in Chita. Source.


Since the beginning of the troubles in Russia, there has been more than a year of disorder. The direct and indirect losses experienced by Chinese migrants across the whole of Siberia, both during and after the European War, are indeed immense. A representative was dispatched to Chita and Irkutsk to conduct a thorough investigation. Now, based on the enquiry, an account of the circumstances and sum of the losses to Chinese migrants in these areas has been prepared and submitted. It also states that the facts of the report are in accordance with the records maintained by local commercial organisations and consulates. My office has reviewed this and concurs. The various instances in the account where the sums are unknown, or which are still awaiting investigation, will be reported on separately once they have been clarified. Apart from that, the original account is copied here for Your Ministry’s reference and implementation.

What followed was a lengthy account of losses to individual migrants in Chita and Irkutsk. Selections from the Chita report are reproduced here. Taking in robberies and two murders from when the city was still under Red rule, it depicts a community of traders, peddlers and farmers, with the former dealing in consumer goods such as cloth, sugar, meat and tobacco. The sums involved were also much smaller than those in Irkutsk, where the losses often ran into thousands of pre-depreciation rubles.

Headquarters of the Japanese 3rd Division in Chita. Source.


Record of the investigation into Chinese migrant losses in Chita
An account of the losses to Chinese migrants in Chita in 1918 due to the disorder in Russia, including the number of items and sums involved, is hereby presented for your reference.

Wang Haoxiang was on the No. 3 train at Chita main station when, on 7 January, Red soldiers robbed him of ten bolts of calico, each worth 200 rubles. Total 2,000 rubles.
Shi Caoyang was at the Chita vegetable plots when, on 4 February, Red soldiers robbed him of a shotgun, value 120 rubles; a pair of boots, value 80 rubles; a padded jacket, value 50 rubles; 3 rubles 7 kopeks in copper coins; 10 jin of good-quality tin, value 120 rubles; a mirror, value 3 rubles; a purse, value 5 rubles, containing 2 rubles 70 kopeks and a bottle of medicine, value 1 ruble 50 kopeks. Total 385 rubles 90 kopeks.
Feng Youqian, Zhang Chunyong, He Sheng, Sun Rongmao, Huang Yulin and Liu Qingguo were all six trading at the Chita bazaar when, on 27 February, they were robbed by the Reds of socks and other goods worth 1,800 rubles.
Guo Yide and Chen Yaoxin came to report that on 13 March, Zhang Qingtang was beaten to death by Russians in the vegetable plot of the small village west of Chita.
Wang Yuzong was on Selenginskaia ulitsa, Chita when, on 17 April, he was robbed by a Russian of a watch, value 80 rubles, as well as 860 rubles in cash. Total 940 rubles.
Feng Chungui sold dough balls at the Chita main station for a living. On 18 June, an Austrian soldier in a Red unit purchased some from him. He followed the soldier to the front of the train to ask for the money, whereupon the Austrian beat him to death with a rifle. This matter was previously brought to the Vladivostok consulate, with Wang Shengsan as witness.
Zhang Cao was in a small shop on Mariinskaia ulitsa when, at 9pm on 17 August, he was robbed by Whites of a watch, value 100 rubles, a passport, a zhaoren[?] wallet containing 200 rubles. Total 300 rubles.
Xing Yinqian was in the main Chita bazaar when, on 25 August, he was robbed by the Reds of 22 jin of lump sugar, at 4.5 rubles per jin value 99 rubles; 60 jin of refined[?] sugar, at 4 rubles per jin value 240 rubles; 14.5 jin of tea leaves, at 20 rubles per jin value 290 rubles. Total 629 rubles.
Cheng Xixian, who runs a small shop at the Chita main station, was on 25 August robbed by the Reds of 5,000 ciagrettes, at 40 rubles [per thousand] value 200 rubles; 22 jin of mubaxie[?] sugar, at 5 yuan per jin value 110 rubles; 2 jin of candles, value 10 rubles. Total 320 rubles.
Wang Zonglai, who ran a laundry on Ussuriiskaia ulitsa, on 25 August had his shop broken into by the Reds, who took 3,500 rubles.
Xiao Chen, a trader in Chita, was on 13 May robbed by the Reds of 10 jin of tobacco, 2,150 shengeliezi[?] cigarettes and one pud of sausages.
Wang Xiewen, a trader on Ussuriiskaia ulitsa, was on 13 April robbed by the Reds of three bags of lump sugar, value 600 rubles.

Letter from Bao Guiqing, 18 March 1919 (sent 11 March). Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, pp. 97-100.
The Zhukovskii Garden in Chita, originally the site of the 1899 Agricultural Exhibition. The Garden included a chapel built in 1903 by a Chinese migrant. Source.

Such reports were compiled as proof of the community’s tribulations, as well as to provide grounds for future compensation. In so doing, the Chinese authorities adopted an approach that had itself been applied to China in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion: imposing a penalty on a foreign government for damages inflicted on one’s diaspora. The Boxer Indemnity of 1901 obliged China to pay 450 customs taels – equivalent to £67 million – for violence committed towards foreign residents, such as the murder of Christian missionaries and siege of the Beijing legations, as well as for the destruction of foreign-owned property. Even as the Beijing government sought to shake off Russia’s share of the Indemnity, therefore, Chinese officials could claim to be using international best-practice in seeking redress for migrant losses.

Yet there is something quixotic about these accounts. Republican China, anxious to gain legitimacy among the Great Powers, continued to pay the Indemnity incurred by the Qing government. But Soviet Russia, whose representatives perpetrated most of the robberies listed in the Chita report, was bound by no such scruple and had repudiated the imposition of indemnities tout court. Even a White government as eager to secure international recognition as Kolchak’s might balk at compensation. Without a recognised Russian state willing to take up the financial burden – and without the clout to enforce compliance – reports such as this became a dead letter.

Chinese Workers and the Red Contagion

In earlier posts, we saw how tens of thousands of Chinese wartime workers were trapped in Russia following the disintegration of the tsarist army in 1917. The withdrawal of Allied recognition from the Soviet regime meant that China’s diplomatic presence in European Russia was reduced to a skeleton crew based first in Vologda, then in Archangel. It also meant that Beijing could not negotiate directly with the Soviets to repatriate these workers. The outbreak of Civil War was the final nail in the coffin, cutting off their homeward route through Siberia. By the spring of 1919 many of these workers had endured almost two years of hardship. No small number – anywhere from 30-70,000, according to historians – joined the Red Army.

Chinese officials were acutely aware that the stranded workers constituted a humanitarian crisis. The remaining members of the embassy attempted to repatriate as many workers as they could until the Civil War and Siberian Intervention halted these efforts. Two years in Soviet Russia and service in the Red Army, however, complicated an already desperate situation. As much as these workers needed to be rescued, there was a chance that they had imbibed Bolshevik ideology and were ready to export revolution to China.

Chinese internationalists in the Red Army, summer 1918. Source.

In early February 1919, therefore, Allied representatives began warning China about the threat posed by returning workers. General Fujii Kotsuchi of the Japanese Army’s 7th Division was the first to counsel caution, informing Chinese officers that the Soviets had specifically instructed Chinese workers to spread Bolshevism back home. His concerns were shared by British ambassador Sir John Jordan.




Jordan: I have received a telegram from my government saying that, according to an announcement from the Russian Bolshevik regime, crowds of Chinese workers in Russia have been asking to return to their country. However, because the number of people is so large, they have decided to send them back in groups. Now the first group of 300 Chinese workers will return and they are asking for the necessary aid. My opinion is that the matter concerns the repatriation of emigre workers and Your Country should devise a solution for it. My government earnestly wishes to assist from the sidelines. I have come specially to inform you of this matter, not knowing if Your Government will allow these Chinese workers to be repatriated.

Chen: I strongly fear that, in repatriating these Chinese workers, the Russian Bolshevik government harbours the intention of spreading Bolshevism and inciting disorder in China. However, since they are emigre workers, they should of course be allowed to return. Moreover, I have heard that when Chinese workers in Russia cannot find jobs, there have been cases of Russians forcing them to serve as soldiers. The Allied countries all wish to reduce the Bolsheviks’ strength and the Chinese government shares this goal. It naturally wishes to repatriate Chinese workers, so as to fulfil its duty to the Allies. Hence refusing repatriation would also not be expedient. Nevertheless, once these workers arrive in China, they will be placed under strict surveillance before dispersing back home, to nip any disorder in the bud.

Jordan: I will wire my government immediately and inform you again if I receive concrete information on the date when these workers will reach the Chinese border.

Meeting between Chen Lu and John Jordan, 25 February 1919, in Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, pp. 67-68.
Chinese Red Army battalion under commander Ren Fuchen (centre, leaning on his left). Ren was killed in battle in November 1918. Source.

Although the group of 300 workers never materialised, Beijing took these warnings seriously. The Foreign Ministry quickly instructed border officials from Xinjiang to Jilin to inspect returning workers stringently. This was confirmed at the highest level by the State Council. Nevertheless, even more worrying signs soon emerged that Chinese workers had fallen prey to the Bolshevik contagion. Embassy secretary Zheng Yanxi, en route to Paris to discuss repatriation with China’s delegation in Versailles, wired about a Chinese workers’ group that seemed to have full Soviet support.


A few days ago, the Moscow Chinese Workers’ Association – in the name of the Executive Committee – used the wireless to issue an announcement to the Chinese, Japanese, British, French, American and Siberian governments. It roughly said that the Chinese workers in Russia are in extremely dire straits, and the Association has discussed with and obtained the approval of the Bolshevik government to repatriate an initial 3,000 workers, to return home via Siberia. It also asked the various countries to assist in expediting the journey. Now the diplomatic corps strongly suspects that the Bolsheviks are using Chinese workers to return home and propagandise. Communications between my office and Moscow are disrupted, and it is hard to tell if this is true. However, if the Association indeed manages to repatriate Chinese workers, the border checkpoints should be instructed before they arrive to stringently inspect the luggage of any of these workers on entry, to see if they contain any Bolshevik propaganda and be on alert. As for whether this is appropriate, I seek your advice.

Telegram from Zheng Yanxi, 11 March 1919 (sent 5 March). Ibid., pp. 87-88.
The 1 April 1920 edition of Datong bao, newspaper of the Association of Diaspora Chinese Workers in Russia. Source.

Zheng’s wire prompted another round of precautions in China. Warlord Zhang Zuolin, leader of the Fengtian clique, proposed to establish a dedicated checkpoint for returning workers in Hailar. The State Council sent out another alert, this time addressed to all provincial governors, instructing that returnees were to be strictly checked and not allowed to hold gatherings. Provocateurs should be dealt with severely.

But just what was this shadowy Moscow Chinese Workers’ Association? It was in fact none other than the sovietised incarnation of the Association of Diaspora Chinese in Russia, formed in May 1917 to assist in the relief and repatriation of wartime workers. The Association had at first been sponsored by ambassador Liu Jingren and, during the Provisional Government period, worked closely with the embassy and the Petrograd Soviet. Following the November Revolution and Liu’s subsequent withdrawal, however, the Association was increasingly isolated. Its attempts to repatriate Chinese workers depended on the goodwill of the Bolshevik government, since only then could it obtain the necessary trains, supplies and medical care to send the workers home.

What followed in the summer of 1918 was therefore a growing rapprochement between the Association and the Soviet regime. The Bolsheviks, for their part, were eager to cultivate a sympathetic organisation that could represent Chinese migrants in Russia. In June 1918, the Association obtained official recognition from the Soviets; three months later, it voiced support for the Lenin government as “the only government in the world by and for the people”. By December it had changed its name to the Association of Chinese Diaspora Workers in Russia – with new regulations that excluded merchants from its ranks – and begun publishing its own newspaper, Datong bao, which was distributed by the Red Army. Finally, in March 1919, its leaders participated in the First Comintern Congress as the “Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party”, formed for the purposes of the event.

Yet one doubts how “Bolshevised” the Association had become. It retained its longstanding chairman, Liu Zerong, whose political views were broadly social-democratic; he never became a party member, joined the Red Army, or even participated in the early Chinese Communist Party after his return in 1920. In its appeals for repatriation, the Association constantly underscored how Chinese workers were suffering in Soviet Russia. There is also little indication that returning wartime workers contributed to the formation of the CCP; few are to be found among the Party leadership. Domestic intellectuals, not wartime migrant labourers, spearheaded the communist movement in China. For all of Beijing’s defences, it was the spread of Bolshevism within its borders that proved most threatening.

Partisans on the Amur

The stretch of the Amur River around Blagoveshchensk had been one of the Reds’ last holdouts. When White and Japanese forces captured the city in September 1918, they put an end to six months of Soviet rule that had devastated a once-bustling provincial capital. Ataman I.M. Gamov, who had fled to China in March 1918 after a failed uprising against the Soviets, returned to Blagoveshchensk triumphant. Yet the Amur region soon became a hotbed of partisan activity. Bloody attacks against the Whites and the Japanese escalated throughout the early months of 1919, with the involvement of seasoned Bolshevik F.N. Mukhin. These were met with punitive detachments that arbitrarily executed suspected Reds, further antagonising the local population.

Chinese officials watched the cycle of violence from across the Amur with increasing concern. Already in early February, Heihe circuit intendant He Shouren spoke of Japanese and White atrocities in Il’inovka; the villagers appealed to the Chinese for help and resolved to resist further raids with violence. The situation had deteriorated so severely by the middle of the month that Heilongjiang military governor Bao Guiqing sounded a note of alarm.

Japanese soldiers shelling the village of Ivanovka, March 1919. Source.






A wire was received from Heihe commander Ba [Ying’e] on 12 February, saying:

‘According to a notice from Japanese vice-consul Bando, more than 400 Reds have gathered on the Russian side of the river opposite Qikete [today Qike zhen] and Taipinggou. Regimental commander Takahashi of the Japanese troops stationed in Khabarovsk has already fought them at a location 180 li south of Cabitale[?] on the Russian bank. The Japanese troops at Heihe left for Mikhailovka, downriver from Innokent’evka, on 2 February to head them off. I have rapidly deployed troops to the Qikete, Wuyun and Baoxing area to shore up defences together with the border guards. Guidelines have also been issued that, if the Reds are defeated and flee towards our bank, it would be best if they could be disarmed and sent to the headquarters to be dealt with. If they dare to resist, they should be immediately attacked. At the same time, I request that the sentries of the 2nd Mixed Regiment in Luobei be instructed to block them off as well.’

I wired a reply and instructed the Luobei sentries to be on strict guard and block [the Reds], not allowing any of them to slip in. If the Reds are defeated and flee towards our bank, they should be immediately disarmed. If they dare to resist, they should be dealt with immediately by force of arms. Now a wire of 14 February has been received from commander Ba and circuit intendant He, which said:

‘Yesterday, translator Tan Xianqing was dispatched across the river to investigate the causes of the unrest. Based on what was heard from various sources, it seems that when the former governing party was defeated and fled to our bank, they planned a revival and frequently colluded with several villages to rise up in support. Since the villages were within the Red sphere of influence, they did not dare to act rashly. Hence [the party] nursed a grievance against them. When the governing party returned to Amur oblast’, they did not think of winning over the people, instead relying on the power of the Japanese army. They arbitrarily accused people of being Reds, murdering and looting at will and inciting popular anger. The remaining Reds could then agitate among them, which has led to this. There is also a rumour of a popular uprising in 17 villages. This afternoon, the commander [Ba] met with the Russian consul and said it was regrettable that the troops in Amur oblast’ were in league with the Japanese and had managed things poorly. Just as we were about to make this report, Chinese migrants in Amur oblast’ reported that the Reds in the whole of the province were showing strong signs of a resurgence and have already begun to act. Last night, Blagoveshchensk was in a state of alarm and soldiers in the barracks took the opportunity to commit arson. Japanese troops and the Whites were on high alert and thankfully a disaster was avoided. The various units have been instructed to be on strict guard.’

I have wired a response and instructed border troops to pay close attention to defence, as well as report on information gathered.

Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 22 February 1919 (sent 16 February), in Yujun Wang, Tingyi Guo and Qiuyuan Hu (eds.) Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian (Taipei: Zhongyang Yanjiuyuan Jindaishi Yanjiusuo, 1960), p. 64.
Tanabe Waichi (left), member of a Japanese gunboat crew that took part in anti-partisan activities on the Amur River. Source.

Bao’s report highlighted how White misgovernment and the behaviour of the Japanese army had so alienated the population that the countryside was on the brink of revolt. Of particular note, however, is that Chinese concerns about the partisan movement centred on mobile populations. The growing violence in Amur oblast’ would send refugees and Reds fleeing into China, just as Gamov and the Whites had. It also directly threatened the region’s sizeable Chinese diaspora. This latter point was emphasised by the migrants’ own advocacy, channelled through the newly-formed Amur Oblast’ Diaspora Association.



Further telegrams of 18 and 19 February from Heihe state that more than 10,000 Reds have gathered in Ivanovka village. On the night of the 17th, they did battle with the Whites and Japanese troops, 60-70 were killed or wounded on both sides. The Reds were victorious, more than 100 Japanese soldiers were killed or wounded. Battalion commander Hori was killed in action. The villagers are gathering in ever greater numbers and Amur oblast’ is in danger. Also, according to a report from the Chinese diaspora association, the leader and members of its branch in that village have all retreated to Blagoveshchensk. However, the migrants and their property are very numerous there and they cannot move. The Russian governor and Japanese consul have been requested to inform the [troops at the] front to protect them. The report also said that Heihe is close to the Russian bank and asked for guidelines on what to do if refugees arrived.

If Russians flee here to escape the disorder, I fear that there may be Reds among them, which would give the Whites and Japanese troops a pretext to conduct searches. This would then undermine sovereignty and the border situation. I have instructed that they should be stopped. A response has been wired to implement this. As for whether this is appropriate, I earnestly seek your instructions on the matter together with the various items in the telegram of the 20th.

Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 22 February 1919 (sent 21 February). Ibid., pp. 64-65.
Mukhin in custody (centre) among White and Japanese troops, March 1919. Source.

Chinese border officials thus recommended the same approach towards all escapee Russians, be they Reds or Whites. Both were threats to border security. They should be prevented from entering Chinese territory or, failing which, should be disarmed beforehand. Where the Whites differed from the Reds was in their treatment of the Chinese diaspora and their collusion with the Japanese army. Bao was already well aware of the mistreatment of Chinese migrants by Semenov; now it seemed that the Whites in Amur oblast’ were just as ruthless.

The disturbances along the Amur culminated in the Ivanovka Incident of 22 March, when White and Japanese forces decimated the village following an abortive partisan attack on Blagoveshchensk. Just as the diaspora association had warned, several Chinese were among the 257 casualties. This cemented the Whites’ reputation for anti-Chinese brutality at a time when the Red Terror and War Communism had not yet made inroads into the Russian Far East. Although the Reds were ideological extremists and harbingers of revolution, the Whites now seemed no better. The Whites’ callousness antagonised Russian villagers and Chinese officials alike – a mistake that would haunt them as the movement collapsed in winter 1919.

China’s Contributions to the Siberian Intervention

Following the Armistice of November 1918, the Allies set about not only to make peace, but also to redraw the map of Europe – and, to some extent, of the rest of the world. Punitive terms would be imposed on the defeated Central Powers. The status of their colonial possessions would be redefined. At the same time, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the ongoing dissolution of the Ottoman led to a clamour for national self-determination and a rejection of imperialist diplomacy. This new spirit was fostered by US President Woodrow Wilson’s highly influential Fourteen Points, which spoke of making the world “safe for every peace-loving nation which…wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world”.

Ambassador to America Wellington Koo at the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. Source.

It was in this ferment that the Paris Peace Conference opened in January 1919. China’s hopes were high, for it had sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to the Allies and entered the war after a serious political crisis, all in the hope of securing a favourable postwar settlement. Its involvement in Siberia was also partly predicated on winning Allied favour. Now that the Allies were victorious, the Chinese delegation – led by Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang and including the Ambassadors to France (Hu Weide) and America (Wellington Koo) – called for the return of Germany’s colonial possessions in Shandong and an end to imperialism in China. Beijing had only joined the Allies in August 1917 and its direct military participation in WWI was limited. To strengthen their hand in Paris, the delegation asked for an account of Chinese activities in the Siberian Intervention.


Ambassador to France Hu wired to request a detailed report on the outcome of the war in Siberia, as a basis for negotiations. This was conveyed to the War Participation Bureau and Your Ministry for common action. We have now received the Bureau’s response, together with a report listing our country’s active contributions to the war in Siberia. The original document is copied here for Your Ministry’s consideration, with the request that it be jointly dispatched to the Ambassador.

The report went on to list China’s role in the Intervention in the Maritime Province, Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. Despite Yang Zengxin’s sheltering of White escapees in Ghulja and Ili, Xinjiang was not part of the Siberian Intervention per se and hence not included. The Maritime Province and Manchurian sections are reproduced below.


Our country’s active contributions to the war in Siberia are listed as follows.
In the Maritime Province:
1. Beginning in August last year, our country successively deployed troops to Russia’s Maritime Province. The total number of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineering, logistics and machine-gun troops is around 4,000, as well as one warship, which participated in the war alongside Allied forces.
2. On 26 August last year, the Allied forces in Vladivostok implemented a joint offensive. Our forces assembled in the Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk area and took charge of military preparations there, including guarding the railway from Suifenhe to Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk. The Reds [lit. “enemy party”] repeatedly sought to damage it but they were all attacked and driven away by our forces, such that the line was kept safe and passage was uninterrupted.
3. The enemy on the Ussuri line retreated in stages. When there was a slight shortfall in Allied strength, our troops immediately advanced to reinforce them and render support. Subsequently, our troops took up the responsibility of guarding the Ussuri line in the Makebeiluo [?] area.
4. After the enemy retreated to Khabarovsk, our cavalry and machine-gun units pursued them together with Japanese forces.
5. The Suchan area [today Partizansk] is the region in Ussuri with the highest coal production and is militarily highly important. Our troops joined with American forces to form a unit in charge of protecting the area, which has been kept safe.
6. Vladivostok is the military command centre of Russian Siberia. The Allies resolved to establish a joint garrison there. We have also deployed troops to take up this responsibility together with naval infantry units.
7. When military conferences are held in Vladivostok, our forces consistently send representatives to participate. All facilities and expenses are equally shared among us and Britain, France, America, Japan and other countries.

China’s military role in the Siberian Intervention was largely confined to the Ussuri region. Of particular note is the relatively large number of troops involved, under 33rd Regiment commander Song Huanzhang. If accurate, this would have put the Chinese contingent above those of the British, French and Italians.

International military police in Vladivostok, November 1919. Source.


In Jilin and Heilongjiang:
1. When Russia and Germany concluded a separate peace, the Reds and enemy POWs plotted to occupy the Chinese Eastern Railway to extend their lines in the east. They colluded with the leader of the Harbin workers’ and soldiers’ party, Riutin, to incite tens of thousands of CER troops and workers to respond from afar; their influence was immense. In ten days, we assembled and deployed strong troops along the line to suppress them and, after a lengthy and pitched battle, the Reds exhausted their strength and surrendered. They were then disarmed by our troops, so that they could not achieve their aims.
2. After the Russian soldiers and workers on the CER belonging to the Reds were disarmed by us, all railway administration in the CER zone came under the protection of our troops, which are stationed at intervals along the line. In more than a year, merchants and travellers are calm, railway administration is improving daily and military transport has benefited from smooth traffic.
3. Troops were deployed to guard Suifenhe, Manzhouli and Heihe. Military craft were dispatched to patrol the banks along the Huntongjiang [the confluence of the Amur and Songhua rivers]. These were to provide a show of force and long-range support, such that more than ten thousand Reds and enemy POWs would not harry Semenov’s forces.
4. Semenov’s forces were repeatedly routed, whereupon we consistently sheltered them and allowed them to recruit soldiers in preparation for a future advance. We aided in the shipping of military supplies and weapons to relieve his army, and protected their flanks from attack.
5. Grain for the Reds was confiscated and exports prohibited in order to secretly cut off their food supply.
6. Additional troops were sent to take over the batteries in the Khingan mountain range and protect important installations.
7. Troops were sent to guard the railway, weapons and ammunition in Harbin, to prevent them from being used by the enemy.
8. The Reds [at Manzhouli] were advised to adopt a five-week ceasefire, so that Semenov’s troops could make arrangements unhurriedly and the Allies would have ample time to deploy their forces.
9. All Allied troops were allowed to pass westwards [through the CER]. Barracks were vacated for them to prevent exposure [of their plans]. Assistance was rendered to all the troops in their duties in the rear, relieving them of any worry.
10. Hundreds of thousands of rubles belonging to the Whites in Blagoveshchensk were protected and used to supply Horvath. More than 400 German and Austrian POWs were arrested to reduce the enemy’s fighting capacity.

Letter from the State Council, 22 February 1919. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, pp. 471-472.
Chief intelligence officer with the American Expeditionary Forces Robert L. Eichelberger with Chinese officers, January 1921. Source.

The claims for Manchuria were far more contentious, primarily centering on China’s ejection of the CER’s Russian railway guard in December 1917-January 1918 and their replacement with Chinese troops. Although there had indeed been a struggle for power over the Railway zone between Riutin’s Bolsheviks and general manager Horvath – and although some of the guard had to be disarmed by force – there had not been a “lengthy and pitched battle” in Harbin. Similarly, traffic on the CER had not been as smooth as the Chinese described. As we have seen, the Allies were at this very stage proposing to manage the CER themselves – an outcome that the Chinese themselves admitted was due to the chaotic conditions on the line.

Similarly, the sheltering of White forces – especially Semenov’s – was highly contentious. As the links above show, local authorities in Manchuria saw Semenov’s, Horvath’s and Gamov’s activities as a threat to border security and Chinese sovereignty. Semenov in particular had acquired a reputation for violence against the Chinese diaspora and for being a Japanese pawn. Wherever possible, border officials attempted to disarm fleeing Whites or persuade them to leave Chinese territory. The Chinese approach towards the Whites therefore split between leniency in Beijing – informed by a need to placate the Allies and the Japanese – and a more unyielding attitude at the border.

China’s optimism at the Paris Peace Conference did not last long. At this stage, however, a close adherence to Allied opinion seemed to offer the best chance of achieving its diplomatic goals. It would take the upheaval of the May 4th Movement and the withdrawal of Allied support for the Whites to bring about a reorientation in Beijing’s Russia policy.

Bolshevik Provocateurs in Xinjiang

In a previous post, we examined the Bolsheviks’ early attempts to win over the Chinese. Speaking unofficially to members of the Chinese embassy, the Soviet government offered to roll back the Russian concession along the Chinese Eastern Railway, abolish treaties “impeding the freedom and independence of the Chinese people”, and cancel Russia’s share of the Boxer Indemnity. Conventional diplomacy, however, was only one aspect of Bolshevik foreign policy. Even in the midst of the Civil War, the advancement of world revolution through underground activity or direct appeals could not be wholly neglected.

As agreeable as the Soviets’ anti-imperialist gestures may have seemed, therefore, the Chinese authorities were alive to the disruptive potential of Bolshevik agitation. The situation in Xinjiang was particularly delicate. Governor Yang Zengxin was determined to avoid any unrest among Xinjiang’s majority Muslim population and keep the province within the Chinese Republic. Yet it was precisely these “Muslims of the East” that the Bolsheviks addressed in their propaganda, calling on them to support the revolution and develop their national and cultural life free from imperialist domination. In Russian Turkestan, the revolution had resulted in an outpouring of Muslim activism across the political spectrum. This ferment could easily spread to their co-ethnics in China, as British ambassador Sir John Jordan warned.

“Now I too am free”: An emancipated Muslim woman turns her back on the mosque and joins a youth organisation. Poster from 1921. Source.


Regarding the activities detrimental to Allied interests in Russia’s Tashkent province, this was conveyed in my correspondence of 23 January last year to Your Ministry, requesting that the Xinjiang authorities prevent the incitement of rebellious activity in Chinese territory and ensure that disorder does not spread into China. Now I have heard that the Bolshevik government in Tashkent is dispatching agitators to disseminate their party’s ideas in various quarters. Moreover, that quasi-government has issued a declaration inciting the people of China and other countries to revolt in sympathy with extremism. Hence, I request that the Xinjiang governor be instructed to report on the current measures to block the declaration, as well as to strengthen defences on the Sino-Russian border, it being of great importance that Bolshevik agitators do not slip into Chinese territory.

Memorandum from the British embassy, 18 January 1919 (sent 15 January). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919): Xinjiang bianfang, pp. 157-158.

Jordan’s alarm was shared by Russian ambassador Kudashev, who warned that Bolshevik representatives were en route to Ghulja to set up a Jadidist society there. The Foreign Ministry took both messages seriously, conveying them to Yang on the same day that they were received. Yang’s reply was somewhat overconfident, given the porousness of the Xinjiang border and the presence of pro-Bolshevik groups among Russian citizens in Ghulja.

Central Asian komsomol delegates in Red Square, 1921. Source.


The British and Russian ambassadors have said that Russian Hui and Uyghurs plan to agitate among Chinese citizens and greater vigilance is needed. The Hui and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are of the same language and race, but between treason and patriotism, their goals are different. Our country cannot ensure that Russian Hui and Uyghurs do not come as provocateurs, but can ensure that our Hui and Uyghurs are not provoked. If China’s Hui and Uyghurs were not provoked before the end of the European War, they will not be provoked after the end of the War. If they were not provoked when Russia’s disorder was at its peak, they will not be provoked when the disorder is about to settle. However, since the Russians plan to agitate among the Chinese, our country cannot but increase its vigilance. As for the British and Russian Hui and Uyghurs in Xinjiang, one should also ask the British and Russian consuls to instruct the local merchant leaders under British and Russian jurisdiction to exercise strict controls, in order to avoid incitement by the Russian Reds. For example, the 1918 disorder in Kucha was led by an Uyghur merchant who fradulently obtained a British trading permit and became a British subject. This was previously reported on. Russia’s internal disorder will not be settled in short order. The troops in all the checkpoints along the Xinjiang border have been instructed to strengthen their defences and prevent the Reds from stealing in. Please set your mind at ease.

Telegram from Yang Zengxin, 25 January 1919 (sent 23 January). Ibid., pp. 160-161.
Demonstration in support of the Kokand Autonomy, Kokand, November 1917. Source.

Yang’s telegram underscored not only the complexities of ethnicity in Xinjiang but also those of subjecthood. The leader of the 1918 Kucha uprising, Muhammad Ali, had obtained a false document from a British-sponsored merchant leader (aqsaqal), with which he could register as a British subject. Such a casual approach to certifying subjecthood was a longstanding feature of the province, where both British and Russian consuls engaged in competitive registration – often on less than valid grounds – as a means of increasing their foothold in Xinjiang. This, in turn, undermined Chinese control over Xinjiang residents and represented an erosion of Chinese sovereignty. Yang’s pointed rejoinder demonstrated his frustration with the practice: How could Chinese officials be expected to police the population if their legal authority was undermined by foreign diplomats?

In fact the main obstacle to Bolshevik activity in Xinjiang was not Yang’s border controls, but the lack of a coherent revolutionary policy in the early years of the Civil War. Should the Bolsheviks agitate among Xinjiang’s Muslims and risk the ire of Chinese officials? Just who were the oppressed colonial populations and who the oppressive imperialists: Turkic Muslims, the Han authorities, or the “Chinese people” for whom the Soviets expressed such sympathy? How would revolutionary agitation serve the concrete interests of famine-stricken Turkestan – especially those regions which depended on Xinjiang for trade – or the prospects for Sino-Soviet friendship? When the White movement in Turkestan collapsed in late 1920, the Bolsheviks stepped up their intervention in Xinjiang, aided by the Comintern’s enthusiasm for spreading revolution in Asia. But these questions continued to divide would-be provocateurs. Xinjiang’s ethnic heterogeneity and peripheral status within the semi-colonial Chinese state only highlighted the difficulty of identifying a revolutionary subject. Agitation among Xinjiang’s Muslims would have to be circumscribed as long as the revolution in China proper remained a priority.

The Inter-Allied Railway Commission

By the beginning of 1919, the Allied intervention in Siberia faced a new set of possibilities and problems. The anti-Bolshevik movement had begun to coalesce around Kolchak’s government in Omsk, which busied itself with mustering an army to take on the Reds. But the success of the war effort – to say nothing of the Allied forces themselves – was highly dependent on the Trans-Siberian and Chinese Eastern railways. Transport on these railways had long been in a chaotic state. In September 1917, Kerensky had requested American assistance to put the Trans-Siberian in order. America’s Russian Railway Service Corps, led by John F. Stevens, arrived too late to assist the Provisional Government. Thereafter the November Revolution, Civil War, and infighting between Kolchak and Semenov only rendered the situation worse.

Some members of the Russian Railway Service Corps in Nagasaki, where they had gone after the November Revolution. April 1918. Source.

The situation on the Chinese Eastern Railway was somewhat different. Unable to work on the Trans-Siberian at first, the Russian Railway Service Corps shifted its focus to the CER in March 1918, where it promptly set about attempting to improve transport. Besides dealing with anti-Bolshevik intrigues in the CER zone, however, the Corps had to contend with the ongoing rivalry between China, Russia and Japan over the Railway. With the advent of the Siberian Intervention, Japanese troops were deployed along the CER zone in accordance with the Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement and had begun interfering in railway affairs. For its part, China considered Russian domination of the zone to be an erosion of its territorial sovereignty. It had succeeded in expelling the Russian railway guard in the winter of 1917-1918 and in appointing a Chinese president to the CER administration. Both Beijing and the Manchurian authorities alike were keen to preserve this hard-won victory. Yet continued mismanagement of the CER put Chinese and Japanese interests on a collison course with America’s desire to reform the railways.

The Americans had already begun to draw up a rescue plan for the CER in August 1918. At the time, they approached Chinese ambassador Wellington Koo and Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang to sound out Beijing’s attitude to Allied supervision of the Railway. Beijing rejected this as an infringement of its rights on the CER, and it seems that no further information was received until a telegram suddenly arrived from Vladivostok three months later.


I have just received information that Japan, America, Britain and France – due to the Russian railway administration’s lack of reform and blockages in transport – propose to jointly supervise the Siberian, Amur and Ussuri railways. The diplomats in Tokyo are to reach an agreement. America wishes to exercise managerial authority, while Japan wishes to serve as the chairman and has requested to send Japanese technicians alongside American ones. Both sides are holding to their own opinions. France approves of the American proposal. The British are also inclined to agree, but they are hindered by the Japanese proposal and find it inexpedient to assert themselves. They are all at odds and after repeated discussions, there is still no result. One fears that the Chinese Eastern Railway is also included in the talks. However, at times when this Railway cannot be maintained by Russia, it should be managed by China. Although other countries cannot be permitted to usurp this position, if there is no choice and joint supervision is discussed again, China should also be the leader, in order to prevent competition and preserve sovereignty. As for whether this is appropriate, I seek your counsel. Regarding the Tokyo talks, Ambassador Zhang [Zongxiang] should be asked to make discreet enquiries.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 12 January 1919 (sent 11 January), in Li Guoqi, Guo Tingyi and Hu Qiuyuan (eds.), Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: Zhongdong tielu (1), Minguo liunian zhi banian (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1983), p. 255.
Corps dispatcher Fayette W. Keeler with Japanese soldiers in Kuanchengzi, 1919. Source.

Liu was the former ambassador to Russia and now served as China’s envoy to the Allied interventionary headquarters in Vladivostok. His telegram mirrored other news coming from Harbin and the Chinese embassies in Washington and Tokyo. It sent shockwaves through Beijing and Manchuria, especially since Chinese enquiries about inter-Allied supervision had been denied in December. Why was China not informed of the Tokyo negotiations, given that the CER was in Chinese territory and the Chinese government was a co-owner? How would an inter-Allied agreement safeguard Chinese sovereignty? Exactly what would Japan’s role be, especially in the critical area of guarding the Railway? The Beijing Foreign Ministry instructed its diplomats to inform the Americans and Japanese that the CER was a joint Sino-Russian enterprise and could not be lumped in with other Russian railways. China should have a leading role in deciding how it should be managed. CER president Guo Zongxi went one step further, suggesting that China lodge a protest at the Paris Peace Conference.

America’s response to Chinese protests was firm. The proposal of inter-Allied supervision was made in order to limit Japanese influence on the CER, precisely with China’s interests in mind. If China were to take over sole management of the Railway, it would only facilitate further Japanese expansion. Besides, Britain and France had not been part of the negotiations in Tokyo, so China could not claim to have been snubbed. This struck the necessary chord: Chinese officialdom was well aware of the tensions between America and Japan in the Far East, and understood that one could be played off the other. A desire to preserve the balance of power in Manchuria eventually informed China’s decision to support inter-Allied supervision of the CER in mid-February.

Engineer John Frank Stevens, head of the Inter-Allied Technical Board, in 1917. Source.

Yet the Chinese continued to be suspicious. Despite America’s professions of goodwill, its exclusion of China from the initial, decisive railway negotiations continued to rankle. Four days after Liu sent his telegram, Japan and America officially reached an agreement on inter-Allied supervision in Tokyo, with the details to be worked out in a subsequent meeting in Vladivostok. But this capped off months of discussions between both countries, of which Chinese officials were only dimly aware. The text of the 15 January agreement, moreover, was only conveyed by the Japanese government to ambassador Zhang Zongxiang two weeks later; Liu also managed to obtain a copy then, although he did not specify how in his correspondence with the Foreign Ministry. Official notice of the substance of the Tokyo agreement was only given on 17 February, when the American and Japanese ambassadors presented it to Beijing. Finally, as Liu’s wire pointed out, the Chinese could hardly believe that the British and French had been kept in the dark. It seemed that China alone had been singled out as a junior partner among the Allies.

The Inter-Allied Railway Commission for the Supervision of the Siberian and Chinese Eastern Railways was inaugurated in March 1919. Liu became the Commission’s Chinese member, together with representatives from America, Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Czechoslovakia. Yale-educated engineer Zhan Tianyou, the “Father of China’s Railroads”, joined the Technical Board headed by Stevens. Throughout the three years of its existence, the Commission allowed the Chinese to continue guarding the CER and maintained a policy of non-interference in local politics. It also served to keep the Japanese in check, just as both China and America had hoped. Nevertheless, the commission was rather less successful in reining in the excesses of White warlords, who proved immune to diplomatic pressure or political suasion. Their depredations would last beyond the fall of the Omsk regime – and until the Chinese takeover of the CER zone in 1920.