Like Vladivostok, Irkutsk in East Siberia was another centre of the Chinese diaspora. Thousands of migrant workers were employed in the surrounding coal mines. The city was also home to a thriving merchant community of more than a hundred shops. According to a consular report, one community leader had been in Irkutsk for more than 20 years and possessed a wealth of more than a million rubles. Another was the regional manager of the international Guang Tai company valued at three to four million, with branches in Shanghai, Hankou and Guangdong.
It was one of only two cities where the tsarist authorities permitted the establishment of a Chinese consulate, which opened in 1915. Here, consul Guan Shangping reports on the March Revolution in Irkutsk. The English translation has been re-paragraphed for ease of reading.
Regarding my account of the current coup in Russia. The Irkutsk governor-general received a secret report on the coup, first assembling in his offices all the senior civilian and military officials of the city, members of the provincial assembly, and the gentry and leaders of the municipal duma in order to discuss a solution and exchange opinions. On 15 March – that is, the day after the meeting – the governor-general announced the entire circumstances of the coup in the capital. In addition, the people were informed that all those who had not obtained permission from local officials could not meet or form associations. Those who contravened this in secret and were discovered would be given three months’ jail, or a fine of three thousand rubles or less.
On the 16th, the establishment of a Committee of Public Organisations was announced in Irkutsk in the name of the provincial assembly. All troops in the entire province would be subject to its direction and mobilisation. For the moment the inhabitants of the entire city were all overjoyed and delighted, their cries of approval were thunderous. On the 17th, the Committee decreed that all would be allowed to meet and associate freely. At the same time, it sent troops to surround the two offices of the governor-general, announcing that he should be arrested to maintain order in the locality. And on the same day, it elected the chairman of the Irkutsk treasury Lavrov [I.A. Lavrov – ed.] as the new governor-general, now to be called the commissar. From then onwards, supreme command over military and civilian governance of the whole province would belong to the Committee.
Recently, the Committee has held that political prisoners incarcerated in the jails of Irkutsk should be freed, and has informed the capital that all have been declared at liberty. As for the Irkutsk governor-general, now their country’s Provisional Government has telegraphed instructing that he should be relieved of his position. He has been freed and the Committee has assigned an armed guard to accompany him to the Russian capital, but he is ill and is unable to go anywhere. These are the circumstances surrounding the reforms in Irkutsk.
In addition, I met with the foreign affairs representative, who said that the Irkutsk governor-general had been sacked and the Committee had elected Lavrov as governor-general, now to be called the commissar. Any matter could be discussed and worked out with him. I then immediately telegraphed the ambassador in Russia [Liu Jingren – ed.] to verify this and ask for instructions, and received a reply that matters could be taken up as before. For the time being there was no need for an official note. I have now done as instructed. I present this report as required for the Ministry’s perusal.Letter from Irkutsk consul Guan Shangping, 11 April 1917 (sent 30 March). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 80-81.
Guan’s account of the revolution in Irkutsk is brief, covering the governor-general’s last-ditch attempts to suppress popular disturbances in the city and the subsequent bottom-up establishment of the Committee of Public Organisations (Комитет общественных организаций). Of note is the key question of political prisoners, given Irkutsk’s importance in the system of Siberian exile. Guan also emphasises the new civic freedoms announced by the Committee, a sign of the incoming regime’s liberal credentials. This was no accident. As will soon become apparent, the changed political atmosphere from autocracy to liberalism or socialism would be reinterpreted as an opportunity for the Chinese diaspora.
Nevertheless, given his position as Chinese consul, Guan’s priority was how he should relate to the new powers-that-be in Irkutsk. This issue was easily resolved for the time being: Since China was soon to be a member of the wartime Alliance, and the Provisional Government had received Allied recognition, China’s diplomatic representatives could continue with business as usual. Real problems arose when a Russian government – whether soviet or White – could not be officially recognised by the Chinese, making visible, state-sanctioned interaction between both states extremely difficult. Top-level diplomatic obstacles filtered down into problems on the ground, as Chinese migrants could no longer employ official diplomatic methods to protect community interests. In such circumstances, the initiative devolved even further to diaspora leaders, frontier officials and “men on the spot” such as Guan himself.
Like consul Lu in Vladivostok, Guan would soon be replaced by another diplomat, Wei Bo. Wei soon set to work consolidating Chinese interests in Irkutsk, forging a relatively positive working relationship with Lavrov. As long as the liberal regime lasted, Chinese diplomats and Russian officials maintained a pragmatic modus vivendi in the city.