March 1917 in Harbin

The bazaar at Pristan. Source

Harbin is an interesting case study of how revolutionary movements can develop in an extraterritorial space, as this document from the Binjiang daoyin (circuit intendant) attests. The English text has been divided into several paragraphs for ease of reading.



Regarding the current Russian revolution and the activities of the Russians in Harbin, I have sent several reports which I trust have been received and read. Now I am submitting a digest of the recent events in this city, to bring them to your attention. Over the past few days, rumours about the recent events in their country were circulating among the Russians in Harbin. When enquiries were made with Russian officials, however, they would not divulge anything. On the night of the 16th, Russian men and women gathered in the streets, causing an uproar until dawn. The next day, Russians newspapers finally began carrying news on the events in their country.

On the 18th the Russians organised a provisional executive committee, unanimously selecting twelve Russian members to carry out its tasks. A section of the Russian military police joined it. On the morning of the 19th, several thousand Russian men, women, soldiers and police carrying the flag upside-down went to see General Horvath, calling loudly for the Constituent Assembly and freedom. Horvath responded to them very graciously. That same day, Russian police and troops abandoned their posts. In the evening, special editions of the Russian newspapers reported on the people’s uprising in Khabarovsk. Harbin’s investigative bureau had entirely gone over to the executive committee, and the Russians were showing aggressive tendencies.

Since this changing situation was unpredictable, apart from placing the railway zone and Fujiadian under strict guard, I also received a telegram from the provisional governors of Jilin that chief of police Zhao had been sent to Harbin to arrange matters.

On the morning of the 20th, the railway company selected 25 men to represent the various organisations in talks with the executive committee. The lawyer Aleksandrov [probably V.I. Aleksandrov – ed.] was unanimously elected head of the committee. On the 21st, the positions of railway deputy General Afanas’ev and the chief of the Russian police were abolished by the committee. The attitude of the Russian troops and police seemed lax. General Horvath, seeing no progress in the situation, could only submit to and accept the committee’s proposal. I have already written to Horvath saying that the city has recently been showing signs of unrest. Regarding the lives and property of the Russians and Chinese in the railway zone and how they should be protected, I had no choice but to have an honest discussion with him. From now on, if the necessity arose, our manager should consider sending troops and police to maintain order. No reply has yet been received. But when I met with Horvath, he said that this was not necessary at the moment. If there was an emergency, he would inform us.

Now I have heard that Horvath has received instructions from the new government of his country that he should remain at his post and maintain order. The executive committee proposes that some aspects of railway and transport matters should be managed by Horvath, with the rest to be dealt with by the committee. The debate was acrimonious and it was impossible to come to agreement. Regarding the maintainence of order along the railway, I have arranged with chief of police Zhao to direct his agencies to make careful preparations. As for the goings-on in Harbin, I will observe and investigate, dealing with matters as they arise.

Telegram from Binjiang daoyin Li Hongmo, 28 March 1917 (sent 24 March). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 64-65.

Li’s report describes how revolutionary sentiments were imported to Harbin via the sizeable Russian diaspora. This was manifested in the politics of the railway zone, which had hitherto been dominated by the directors of the Chinese Eastern Railway. Popular resentment towards General Manager D.L. Horvath spilled over into the streets, an alternative administration was formed under the executive committee, and both troops and police no longer obeyed orders. Under the provisions of extraterritoriality, the Russian community was entitled to govern itself. But what would happen if the community no longer accepted the authority of its own leaders, and law and order broke down?

The difficulties with maintaining order reflect the interlocking structures of power in Harbin and the railway zone. Administration of the city was divided between Russian-controlled Harbin and Chinese-governed Binjiang (including Fujiadian). Policing of the railway zone was largely carried out by Russian forces but, according to the railway treaty, the Chinese too had the right to maintain order on the railway. Moreover, the coexistence of Russian and Chinese authority in Harbin was complicated by the fact that many Chinese – officials and “civilians” alike – wished to regain full control over the railway zone. Horvath’s woes, combined with the ambiguities of who could exercise authority in Harbin, opened up new possibilities for Chinese officialdom. As Li’s letter to Horvath suggested, the Chinese could take over policing if the Russians were unable to do so.

The Provisional Government’s consolidation – and its confirmation of Horvath in his post – brought the temperature in Harbin down for the moment. A public celebration was held on 23 March to commemorate the success of the revolution, while the executive committee set about reorganising the civilian administration of the city. Nevertheless, continued antagonism between the Russian railway guard and the railway administration led to further deterioration in law and order. Li’s suggestion became reality only a few months later: In May, Jilin military governor Meng Enyuan dressed Chinese troops in police uniforms and sent them to patrol Harbin, changing the rank and unit names to sound more “police-like”. This was in direct violation of the railway treaty, since Chinese troops were not allowed in the railway zone, but the Russians were in no position to object. The Beijing government was in complete approval – a small victory, perhaps, for Chinese sovereignty in the railway zone.

2 thoughts on “March 1917 in Harbin

  1. Pingback: The Provisional Government Period in Harbin – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: Policing Post-Tsarist Harbin – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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