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.
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.
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.
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.