Strangers on the Eastern Front

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.






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.
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.

7 thoughts on “Strangers on the Eastern Front

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