The April Crisis and Chinese Workers

aprilcrisispetrograd
Radical members of the Petrograd garrison protest the Miliukov Note in May 1917. Source.

For many in Russia, the March Revolution was a chance to realise long-held aspirations for freedom, democracy, peace and the rights of labour. However, the first post-revolutionary cabinet was unable to meet all these demands. Its continued commitment to Russia’s wartime Allies was particularly galling for war-weary soldiers, who no longer saw the attraction of fighting for “imperialist” goals. Ambassador Liu Jingren described the looming crisis in Petrograd.

茲將垂詢各節,查復如下:
關於軍界者:一、軍勢軍力,懈弛不固,前敵兵士心醉平等自由,及社會黨均產主義,藐視抗令及棄械潛歸者甚眾。經政府諄誡,並從嚴追究,此風稍戢,然軍務已大受影響,人心震惶,慮敵將至。二、軍隊多數贊成民主,惟哥薩克兵世受殊恩,彼時或主張君憲,但少數仍無裨耳。三、軍民久惡帝制,尼古拉大公爵兵權即去,事無可為。四、現內閣堅持不背同盟,戰爭到底。
關於政界者:一、現內閣員能融合意見,盡瘁從公,外人咸嘖嘖稱頌。二、國會未經改組黨派,如臨時政府目前以青年、進步、及社會各黨勢力最大,大都順從民意,傾向共和,將來選舉時必多數贊成民主。至在地方上勢力,則首推社會黨。三、各省均暫行地方自治,外藩如波蘭,則布告完全獨立,芬蘭則布告自治。各省總督半被拘禁,勢權全失,如東海濱省關達基,土耳其斯坦省哥魯巴金均在內,至外藩將來趨向,尚難預測。

Having received your enquiries, my findings are as follows:
On the military: First, military potential and strength are wavering and lax. Troops on the front are entranced by equality and freedom and the socialists’ doctrine of equal distribution of property. A great many despise and disobey orders, as well as throw down their weapons and secretly return home. After the government’s repeated warnings and strict investigations, this trend has abated somewhat, but military matters have been greatly affected and people are panic-stricken, fearing that the enemy will soon arrive. Second, most of the troops support democracy, only the cossacks have enjoyed imperial favour. They may propose a constitutional monarchy, but their numbers are small and will have no effect at all. Third, the army has long hated autocracy, Grand Duke Nicholas has been relieved of his command and is powerless. Fourth, the cabinet now firmly maintains that it will not violate the Alliance and will fight to the end.

On politicians: First, cabinet members are currently able to reconcile their opinions, exerting themselves to the utmost in public service. Outsiders all admire it and sing its praises. Second, the Duma parties have not been reshuffled. In the Provisional Government, the Youth [Kadet – ed.], Progressist and socialist parties are currently the strongest. They mostly follow the popular will and are inclined towards a republic. In the future elections the majority will certainly support democracy. As for power in the localities, the socialists are on top. Third, the various provinces have temporarily adopted local self-government, imperial territories such as Poland have declared complete independence, whereas Finland has declared autonomy. The governors-general of the various provinces have mostly been arrested and completely divested of their authority, including Gondatti in Primor’e and Kuropatkin in Turkestan. As for the future direction of these imperial territories, it is still hard to predict.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 25 April 1917 (sent 23 April). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 87-88.

Liu’s report highlights the dichotomy between the army’s unwillingness to fight and the Provisional Government’s decision to honour Russia’s military obligations. This tension erupted into open conflict during the April Crisis, after the Miliukov Note of 1 May (18 April in Old Style) was divulged. The Note, which spoke of pursuing the war to a victorious conclusion and the “guarantees and sanctions” of imperial diplomacy, was seen as a violation of the popular desire for peace and rejection of imperialist war. Massive demonstrations took place in Petrograd to protest the Note. A crisis of confidence in the cabinet led not only to Miliukov’s fall from grace, but also increased the legitimacy of the socialist-dominated Petrograd Soviet. Members of the Soviet now joined the Provisional Government.

The next two documents show how the Chinese were alive to the possibilities presented by the April Crisis. Not content to be a mere spectator of the unfolding shift in power, Liu wrote to the Foreign Ministry with his own proposal.

在俄華工事,俄政府允與使館會議改良,連日我與各方面集議,大都因政治維新,顧徇我請立合同。旋經文哲爾稱,聞北京擬有統一合同,俟接該合同底稿后,酌量情形,再行核議等語。現北京是否擬有統一合同,最好乘此時機,比照俄工條款,與[彼]磋商,因彼社會方盛唱平等主義也。

On the Chinese workers in Russia, the Russian government has agreed to discuss improvements with the embassy. Over several days I have met with the various organisations for joint discussions. Due to the political reforms, most consider submitting to my request to establish a contract. Shortly thereafter [unsure of name – ed.] said they heard that Beijing has planned a unified contract. As soon as a draft of that contract had been received, after due consideration of the circumstances, further clarification and discussion could take place. Now, if Beijing does have a unified contract planned, it would be best to take this opportunity to consult the regulations for Russian workers and discuss it with them, since their social groups are exuberantly proclaiming egalitarianism.

Telegram from Liu Jingren, 11 May 1917 (sent 8 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 95.

The Foreign Ministry responded in kind, with a terse note of approval.

俄工用事,正可乘機商改保工辦法,大要在工價待遇,與俄工一律。部擬模范合同另寄。

With the Russian workers in power, one can indeed take the opportunity to discuss and change how labourers are protected. Most crucial is that wages and treatment should be identical to those of Russian workers. The Ministry will send a sample draft contract separately.

Telegram to Liu Jingren, 16 May 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 96.

The message from both Liu and the Foreign Ministry is clear: With the socialists now in the ascendancy, the Chinese could harness their rhetoric of equality and labour to protect Chinese wartime workers in Russia. A previous document has shown that the issue of Chinese labourers was of great concern to Liu. He was well aware of their poor wages and working conditions, although powerless to act. The April Crisis furnished an ideal opportunity to rectify matters and enforce employment contracts for all Chinese recruits.

This exchange between Liu and the Ministry demonstrates how Chinese diplomats did not merely “observe and report” on the revolutionary situation. Instead, they perceived the events in Russia as a chance for the Chinese community – if not the nation – to achieve prior goals, from the welfare of migrant workers to the “recovery” of rights and territories seen as “lost” to the Russians. Both men on the spot such as Liu and the government in Beijing shared this sense of opportunism. To that end, the events in Russia collided with Chinese aspirations and agency, with far-reaching consequences outside the borders of Russia itself.

2 thoughts on “The April Crisis and Chinese Workers

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