Strangers on the Eastern Front

chinesemurmansk
Chinese workers in Murmansk. Source.

Even before the first stirrings of revolution in 1917, the Chinese community was facing upheavals of its own in European Russia. At least 100,000 Chinese labourers had been recruited by the tsarist army in World War I. Recruitment was poorly regulated and many workers were abused, resulting in a welfare crisis among the Chinese diaspora.

Xu Guoqi has written extensively about Chinese workers in France and Belgium in his 2011 book Strangers on the Western Front. Rather less is known about those workers destined for the Russian army. Here, in a letter arguing for the establishment of consulates in European Russia, Ambassador Liu Jingren describes the fate of many such recruits. As the document is rather lengthy, I have highlighted certain key passages.

本館前以華工來俄日眾,萬難兼顧,業於上年十月三日咨電中,陳請分設領館,以資保護在案。查此事關系厥有三大端:一國體,一民命,一商務。謹再為大部分別言之。

使館僅系外交性質,凡與地方長官及其他機關有所商權,須經外部轉達,例不直接,一設領館,則使館所不能直接者,彼可與之直接。英、法等國在俄境各城埠所設領館,不下三四十處,我同洲之日本,固不必論,即孱弱如波斯,在俄領館猶有二十處之多。以我華僑人數之夥,事務之繁,較諸日、波,何啻倍蓰,斷非少數館員所能兼顧。且數月以來,各地華工,愈來愈眾,其原因則以俄京佣值較昂,輒紛紛私逸,舍彼就此。惟彼輩身票,早經雇主扣留,於是來館求請執照,俾向警署另換身票者,擁塞門前,日以百計。類皆襤褸不潔,形如乞丐,萬目睽睽,騰笑途人。毘鄰既有煩言,房主亦頻詰問,使館尊嚴,為之減色,若一設領事,可免以上口實。此其關系國體者一。

華工蹤跡,遍布歐俄各省,聞其數已達六七萬,地段既廣,調查匪易。其工作在歐俄方面者,如邊爾姆之採煤,穆爾孟之筑路,潑司谷甫及維得彼克等省之伐木,或為飢寒所困,或為威稜所逼,種種情形,不一而足。余如雇充軍役情事,更屬漫無稽查。他國人民,目擊心傷,輒為不平。我如不於歐俄要地,分設領事,為之保護,恐人言藉藉,無以自解。際此強權時代,雖未敢謂一設領館,便可無虞,然領事為使館耳目,可補使館所不及,凡有因彼此誤會,釀成舋隙者,領事得從中和解,預為防弭,如是則無形中之保全,正自不少。此其關系民命者一。

歐戰延長,和平無期,俄人不但需用華工,抑且需用華貨,近來彼之工商各界,往往有投函中國領館,訂購貨物或軍用等品者,郵局以俄京無中國領事,乃將各項函件,送至領館,顧以職權所囿,未便承攬,僅向彼逐一指示,囑令自向商家接洽。彼以中立各國,乘此戰時,各由其領事介紹,兜銷商貨,惴惴恐后,獨中國既缺領館,又乏商員,交易無從,引以為憾。遂不得不假手日本領館,日人以求過於供,輒從中國購貨,運赴俄京,托名日貨,暢銷市場,獲利之厚,不可勝算。我國徒以在歐俄方面,無一領館,受此影響,致塞利源,商戰不振,無庸曲諱,亡羊補牢,端在此時。此其關系商務者一。

以上種種理由,則分設領館一事,勢難再緩,如以財政艱困,經費難籌,可否先在俄京設立總領事館,日后再推及他處。事關國體、民命、商務三大端,冒瀆具陳,務乞大部核准,迅予施行。

This embassy has previously written on 3 October last year to request the establishment of consulates in order to protect the Chinese coming to Russia, the number of whom is growing by the day and cannot easily be managed by one organisation. The matter concerns three key aspects: National prestige, the people’s lives, and trade. I will speak on each aspect again for the Ministry.

The embassy has a purely diplomatic character. All its negotiations with local officials or other organisations must be conveyed to the Foreign Ministry; that is, they are indirect. Once consulates are established, what the embassy cannot deal with directly, they can. Britain, France and other countries have set up no less than 30 or 40 consulates in the various towns and ports of Russia. Of Japan, from the same continent as us, even less needs to be said. Even Persia, weak as it is, has as many as 20 consulates in Russia. The sheer number of our Chinese migrants and the complexity of their issues are orders of magnitude greater than those of Japan or Persia. Certainly they cannot be managed by the small embassy staff. Moreover, in the previous months, Chinese workers from the various localities have grown more and more numerous, since wages are higher in the Russian capital. Hence they flee in droves, giving up their former places to come here. However, their papers being confiscated by their employers, they then come to the embassy seeking permits in order to exchange them at the police station for [new] ones. They crowd in front of the door, a hundred a day. The whole lot are shabby and filthy, looking like beggars, all eyes are on them and the passers-by laugh. The neighbours have complained and the landlord has questioned us repeatedly, and the dignity of the embassy has faded because of it. Establishing a consulate would avoid such talk. Such is the aspect of national prestige.

Chinese workers have left their traces throughout the various provinces of European Russia. It is said that their number has reached 60-70,000. The area is vast and any investigation by no means easy. Their work in European Russia includes mining coal in Perm, building the railway in Murmansk, logging in Pskov and Vitebsk. They are either beset by hunger and cold, or subject to coercion; their circumstances are varied and such instances are not rare. If yet others have been employed in military service, it has gone unchecked for the longest time. The people of other countries are moved when they see them, for this is injustice. If we do not establish consulates in key locations in European Russia to protect them, people will speak out and we will be hard-pressed to explain ourselves. In this era of power politics, one cannot say that the establishment of consulates will negate all worries, but they will be the embassy’s eyes and ears and make up for what the embassy cannot do. If misunderstandings arise and cause conflict, consulates can settle, prevent and defuse them, thus preserving the situation imperceptibly just when such issues are plentiful. Such is the aspect of the people’s lives.

As the European war grows longer and there is no prospect of peace, the Russians not only need Chinese workers, they also require Chinese goods. Recently, their industrial and commercial bodies have frequently written to the Chinese embassy to place orders for goods or military materiel. Since there is no Chinese consulate in the Russian capital, the postal service has sent all letters to the embassy. However, since this exceeded the limits of our authority, we were unable to undertake these contracts and had to advise each and every one to negotiate with [Chinese] merchants themselves. They expressed regret that while the consulates of other neutral countries are striving with each other to take advantage of the war to broker and sell their goods, only China lacks a consulate and commercial representatives, with no way of arranging trade. There is no choice but to go through the Japanese consulate. Since demand exceeds supply, the Japanese buy goods from China and ship them to the Russian capital labelled instead as Japanese goods. They sell well in the market and countless profits are made. Merely because China has no consulate in European Russia and suffers from this, the wellsprings of profit are blocked up and we slacken in the commercial war. There is no need to mince words: This is the moment after which the horse will have bolted and we cannot lock the stable door. Such is the trade aspect.

For the above reasons, the establishment of consulates cannot be further delayed. If, due to financial difficulties, their operating costs cannot be met, a consulate-general could first be set up in the Russian capital, to be expanded into other areas later. The matter concerns the three key aspects of national prestige, the people’s lives, and trade. I take the liberty of writing this, asking that the Ministry approve and implement it swiftly.

Letter from Liu Jingren, 15 February 1917 (sent 23 January). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 25-26.
workermap
Map showing the distribution of Chinese workers before the November Revolution. Source.

This is a rich and complex document with much to unpick. When Ambassador Liu wrote the letter, China had not yet joined the wartime Alliance. In 1916, however, the Beijing government had approved the recruitment of Chinese auxiliary labour by the Allies, hopeful that this would enable the return of Germany’s Chinese colonies in a post-war settlement. Beijing was also sensitive about the treatment of its overseas labourers: The workers hired under this policy were supposed to have contracts and were strictly barred from military duty.

Britain and France hired 140,000 such labourers for the Western Front. In Russia, however, the situation was very different: The length of the Sino-Russian frontier and established networks of cross-border migration made it possible for unregulated recruitment to take place on a massive scale. In many cases, the workers bundled into train carriages had no contracts at all or did not even know where their final destinations were. They were taken to the western borderlands of European Russia, away from the traditional centres of the Chinese diaspora. Worse still, apart from the embassy in Petrograd, China did not have any consular organs in European Russia who could keep an eye on, or advocate for, these wartime workers. Up until 1917, the tsarist government had blocked any attempts to increase the number of Chinese consulates. Only one in Vladivostok and another in Irkutsk were allowed, and neither were of much help to workers in Murmansk or Vitebsk.

Liu’s letter was an appeal for China to strengthen the protection of its wartime workers. It starkly described the vast areas across which Chinese wartime workers were deployed, as well as their exploitation and abuse. At the same time, the poor treatment of Chinese workers was not just an injustice – it was also an affront to China’s prestige. The sight of filthy, suffering Chinese workers detracted from China’s international image. Faced with the complaints and questions of non-Chinese, China would have to explain why it could defend its citizens. According to Liu, this was as important as the welfare of the workers themselves.

1877 Nast WASP Chinese Gibson and Loomis
An American portrayal of Chinese workers: violent, dirty and dishonest. Source.

Finally, Liu masterfully played on China’s competition with Japan. He emphasised how Japan had better consular representation than China. Russians wished to trade with China, but Japan seized the initiative and profited from Chinese goods. The scars of imperial competition were still fresh after China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s rapid expansion into Korea, Taiwan and South Manchuria. Even more galling was Japan’s status as a fellow Asian country – which Liu clearly mentioned – that had previously fallen under China’s confucian and cultural influence. Liu’s message was clear: The era of Social-Darwinian power politics and trade wars left little room for China to fall behind for, if it did, Japan was poised to profit at its expense.

This letter predated the March Revolution. However, it clearly presented some of China’s existing preoccupations and therefore set the scene for post-revolutionary developments. As the Russian army gradually disintegrated throughout 1917, Chinese wartime workers were abandoned at the front, deepening the welfare crisis still further. Liu and other members of the Chinese community would attempt to cope with this under the Provisional Government. Neither did the Beijing government forget the consulate issue. Revolution in Russia meant the chance to protect and advance the interests of Chinese workers and merchants at last.

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