In an earlier post, we examined a Chinese report on the March 1917 uprisings in Harbin as a case study of the complexities of revolution in a Russian colony. The railway zone was, after all, a sharply contested territory, in which Chinese sovereignty had not been ceded for good. Such ambiguities only deepened as 1917 wore on, as illustrated by the following letter by Jilin governor Guo Zongxi on the post-revolutionary administration of Harbin. The English text has been re-paragraphed.
Regarding the various post-revolutionary circumstances of the Russian migrants living in Harbin, successive reports have been made and are on file. Now, according to an intelligence report, the Executive Committee formed by the Harbin Russians is internally divided into two sections. The legislative section is formed from the assembled representatives of the various social groups and organisations. All matters in Harbin large or small, or gentry and popular petitions are decided by a meeting of the whole body of representatives. During their meetings, the lawyer Aleksandrov acts as chairman, and proposals are decided on via the approval of the majority of delegates. Once a decision has been made, it is directly implemented in the various organisations in Harbin, such as the Chinese Eastern Railway Company or the courts, inspectorates and police of different levels.
The other section is a committee comprising a few people elected by members of the legislative section, dedicated to implementing the proposals promulgated by that section, as well as receiving correspondence, meeting guests and answering external inquiries. In other words, it manages all institutional and personal communications. This committee is also headed by Aleksandrov. He sometimes handles matters alone, but when unable to he is replaced by Vol’fovich, who is a Harbin merchant. The committee’s internal paperwork is handled by the lawyer Kozlovskii [unsure of name – ed.].
Since the establishment of the Executive Committee, it has not undergone any changes until now. Upon investigation, the reason is that the new central government in Russia now plans to call a Constituent Assembly, and it is necessary to wait until the Assembly has opened, decided on a unified solution for the entire country and promulgated it in Harbin. Only then can anything be changed.
The current chairman of the Executive Committee, Aleksandrov, staunchly upholds democratic views, which are warm and sincere. He behaves in a peaceable and friendly way, never expressing extreme opinions. Hence, he was elected as the head of the legislative section as well as of the [communications] committee. Now, apart from Aleksandrov, the most influential individuals are Vol’fovich and Prince Kugushev [G.G. Kugushev – ed.]. Vol’fovich is a Harbin merchant and a Russian Jew, while Prince Kugushev is the managing director of the Russo-Asiatic Bank in Harbin. Apart from them, the lawyer Kozlovskii as a member of the assembly also serves as the secretary of the [communications] committee.
A few days ago De Sheng [probably a traditional courtesy name – ed.] went with a translator to meet Aleksandrov. The conversation touched on how matters are still not ripe at present, but youths and soldiers are overly impetuous. He felt that calming them would not be easy.
Furthermore, according to one of the Committee members, when the current revolution occurred the Russian people were entirely dissatisfied with all the administrative arrangements in the CER zone. They were anxious to use it as an opportunity for an uprising to topple the administration in one stroke. At this juncture the soldiers were especially fired up, and a secret meeting was immediately called that debated matters for more than ten days. Whereupon Aleksandrov etc came with a statement, saying in effect that the CER zone had the character of one of their Russian concessions. Tenants in a leasehold should abide by their agreements unfailingly, not change their decrees in the course of a day, giving rise to the landlord’s suspicion. All innovations may take place in Russia’s domestic territory but cannot be implemented in Chinese leaseholds. These words were then approved by the entire body, with no objections from any of the delegates. From this it may be seen that although Russia’s domestic reforms are now still unpredictable, it seems that no great changes may be seen in the Railway zone in Manchuria.
Regarding these matters, apart from submitting a report to the State Council and Interior and Army ministries, a copy is despatched for your Ministry’s reference.Letter from Jilin governor Guo Zongxi, 25 May 1917 (sent 22 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 100-101.
Guo’s account of the new administration in Harbin reveals several uncanny parallels with the situation in Russia. There was the widespread dissatisfaction with the pre-revolutionary governance of the Railway zone, which was not fully addressed by the incoming Executive Committee. The backgrounds of the leaders mentioned by Guo are somewhat obscure. Chairman V.I. Aleksandrov in particular seems to have been rather wealthy, as part-owner of the Hotel Moderne in Harbin. Marc Kasanin’s memoirs, China in the Twenties, mentions a lawyer named Kozlovsky who had taken part in the 1905 Revolution in Harbin (Kasanin 1973, p. 131), and Vol’fovich may have been a Socialist Revolutionary (Robert Scalapino and George Yu, Modern China and its Revolutionary Process, p. 590). Nevertheless, like the Provisional Government, the Executive Committee was staffed by “bourgeois” moderates from trade or the professions.
At the time of writing a unified Harbin Soviet of workers and soldiers had not yet been formed – it would only come into existence in June – but, as in Russia, soldiers had already overtaken moderate reformers in their radicalism. The desire for further political change was met with calls for patience. No more innovations could take place until the Constituent Assembly was convened – a delay that proved fatal for the Provisional Government in Russia, as in Harbin.
However, there was an additional reason for the Executive Committee to prevaricate. As Aleksandrov pointed out, the Railway zone was technically a leasehold where Chinese and Russian control were entangled. Rash administrative decisions might not only contravene the 1896 Sino-Russian treaty that established the zone, they could also invite legitimate Chinese intervention. More than in Russia itself, the revolutionary movement in Harbin had to contend with the sovereign rights of another state.
Frustration with the “frozen” state of affairs in Harbin would soon reach a head. As summer turned to autumn, the Bolsheviks would soon gain power in the newly-constituted Harbin Soviet, as they did in Russia itself. Waiting in the wings was Railway general manager Horvath, who represented pre-revolutionary authority and was a known quantity to the Chinese. Events in Petrograd would soon be mirrored thousands of miles away in the Railway zone, with one crucial difference: Chinese officials were waiting for the opportunity to act.