We have already seen how Ambassador Liu and the Foreign Ministry in Beijing were keen to harness the growing power of the socialists and the Petrograd Soviet after the April Crisis. This was not empty talk. Liu and other members of the Chinese diaspora formed a new migrant association to protect Chinese wartime workers. Their concern for these workers was shared by the Petrograd Soviet, much to Liu’s approval.
Chinese workers have been abused in various ways, and repeated negotiations with the former Russian government were all lacking in real results. This has all been reported to the Ministry and is on file. Now that Russia is reforming and the workers’ faction is in the ascendant, it is imperative to take the opportunity to remedy the situation, such as conducting on-the-spot investigations in the various towns regarding the disabled and sick, establishing shelters, and upholding their lives and interests. All these will not permit delay. The embassy has few staff and strenuous duties, and has difficulty dealing with this satisfactorily at the same time. I advocated for an Association of migrant students, merchants and workers in Russia, which elected the student Liu Zerong as chairman and raised funds for its operating expenses. After it met, Association members and embassy staff approached the duma [i.e. city duma – ed.], Soviet and workers’ control committees several times to discuss means of protecting Chinese workers.
According to the chairman of the Soviet, Chinese workers are scattered across more than 30 locations. The original recruiters have mostly abandoned their responsibilities. If an oversight organisation were to be set up in the Russian capital alone, it would be difficult to conduct thorough investigations. Those who are left out will then see the Russian capital as the promised land and stream in, whereupon our ability to cope with them will be exhausted and a dangerous situation may arise. A fundamental solution should be for the embassy or the Association to send representatives to be stationed in various key areas and attend to the needs there. However, the expenses for shelters, transport, relief, care and so on are estimated to require 200,000 rubles. The Soviet is sincere in protecting workers and the Chinese government cares for its people like it would the wounded. It is natural that they both would do their utmost to relieve Chinese labourers. Now that our Soviet and Duma wish to provide the funds to undertake this relief effort, if the Chinese government would generously share the burden, the difficulties of the unfortunate Chinese workers may be eased.
The chairman treats all equally without discrimination and handles matters warmly and sincerely. Indeed, such was unheard of during the era of Russian autocracy. Knowing that the sharing of expenses involves a very large sum and arises incidentally, I very much hesitated. But the matter involves saving 100,000 of our souls and, having heard this, I would not dare to withhold it from my superiors.Letter from Liu Jingren, 29 May 1917 (sent 23 May). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 103-104.
Given the social problems caused by homeless and impoverished Chinese workers drifting into Petrograd, it is unsurprising that both the Chinese embassy and the Petrograd Soviet recognised the need for an effective relief effort. For his part, Ambassador Liu encouraged the founding of a diaspora organisation for workers’ relief. The organisation, formed on 1 May 1917, was officially named the Association of Overseas Chinese in Russia (旅俄華僑聯合會) and counted eight Chinese students as its founders. Chairman Liu Zerong would subsequently play a leading role in workers’ welfare, as well as in the radicalisation of the Chinese community.
The Petograd Soviet proved more than amenable to addressing the needs of Chinese workers, and the entire second paragraph of this document sets out the proposals of its chairman, the Menshevik N.S. Chkheidze. For the first time, Chinese representatives would be allowed to inspect work sites and involve themselves directly in the supervision of workers’ welfare. Moreover, the Soviet was willing to cough up 200,000 rubles to relieve Chinese workers. Quite apart from its “sincere” desire to protect workers as a whole, one also suspects that the Soviet would rather deal with the issue of destitute Chinese labourers elsewhere, rather than allow more of them into an already volatile Petrograd.
Liu’s opportunism seemed to have borne fruit and the Foreign Ministry did not balk at the “large sum” involved. According to its calculations, after all, the post-revolutionary fall in the value of the ruble meant that 100,000 rules – the Chinese half of the required sum – came to only 40,000 silver yuan. The Ministry subsequently wrote to Chinese President Li Yuanhong setting out the Petrograd Soviet’s proposal. Li personally contributed 10,000 yuan in response and the entire sum was eventually received by the Chinese embassy in September 1917.
This moment of convergence was one of the revolution’s might-have-beens. Had the Provisional Government lasted, the combination of Chinese community initiative and less-radical Russian socialism might have resulted in a better outcome for wartime workers. As we shall see, the first few months of collaboration between the Association, the Petrograd Soviet and city duma proved relatively fruitful. Unfortunately, the Russian army’s escalating disintegration and the rise in popularity of the Bolsheviks soon put paid to these early achievements.