The Warlord Dimension

“Struggle between North and South”. Cartoon by Shen Bochen in Shanghai Puck, 1918. From Arthur Waldron, “The Warlord: Twentieth-Century Chinese Understandings of Violence, Militarism, and Imperialism”, The American Historical Review 96(4), 1991, p. 1091.

In previous posts, we looked at the crisis of abandoned Chinese wartime workers and  joint efforts by both Chinese and Russian authorities to resolve it. On the Chinese side at least, the drive to defend migrant worker interests was not new. After April 1917, however, it was sharpened by a sense of opportunism: Now that Russian socialists were gaining power and placing the welfare of Chinese workers on the agenda, the time had come to press for real change.

Nevertheless, domestic obstacles continued to plague the humanitarian effort, as the following documents from the Foreign and Finance Ministries show.





Beginning last year, since Russia needed Chinese labour for railway and forestry projects, the Yi Cheng company signed a contract with Russian recruiters to hire more than 20,000 Chinese on their behalf to work there. Together with those independently recruited by Russians in the Chinese Eastern Railway zone, the number [of workers] has already reached 100,000, according to a report from Ambassador Liu in Russia. Upon reaching Russia, the aforementioned Chinese workers have become homeless wanderers, whose hardships are innumerable. Ambassador Liu has repeatedly reported on this to the Ministry. The Ministry has previously supplemented the embassy in Russia with two labour inspectors, responsible for investigating the abuse of workers, in order to conduct negotiations with the Russian governent.

Now, according to a telegram from Ambassador Liu, ever since the reforms in Russia the workers’ faction is in the ascendant. The opportunity should be urgently taken to remedy the situation. Hence, he encouraged a merchants’, students’ and workers’ association to select delegates to hold talks with the Russian workers’ Soviet. The Soviet proposed that the embassy in Russia or the Chinese association send representatives to be stationed in key areas to look after Chinese workers. For shelters, repatriation, relief and other operating expenses, around 200,000 rubles will be needed. Both sides could each do their utmost to raise the funds and meet this need. Since the Russians were willing to share in the fundraising, we should naturally agree to shoulder half of it in order to preserve our emigrants in their distress. [Liu] asked for the government’s opinion on this.

The [Foreign] Ministry has since written to the Finance Ministry, asking it to disburse 40-50,000 yuan – equivalent to 100,000 rubles – to be remitted to the Russian capital, such that the workers’ hardships may be relieved. It has not received the Finance Ministry’s reply. The matter involves the rescue and relief of 100,000 Chinese emigrants’ lives. If it moves the President to take pity on the current state of these migrant workers, to generously help them in some way by way of encouragement, and to instruct the Finance Ministry to disburse the 40-50,000 yuan, the desperate may yet find rescue. When the winds of virtue reach them, surely 100,000 migrant workers will not be alone in giving thanks for the President’s kindness.

Comment: I, the President, donate 10,000 yuan, with the rest to be disbursed by the Finance Ministry.

Memorandum from the Foreign Ministry to the President, 8 June 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 111-112.




According to a message from Your Ministry:

‘A telegram from Ambassador to Russia Liu states that the abuse of Chinese workers has been repeatedly discussed with the Russian government to no avail. Now, just as the workers’ faction is in the ascendant, the opportunity should be urgently taken to remedy the situation. The leader of the Russian workers’ Soviet has now proposed to work with the embassy to send representatives to key areas for welfare, repatriation and relief efforts, and estimates that 200,000 rubles will be needed for operating costs. The Chinese government was asked to share the responsibility and Liu enquired as to how he should proceed. Previously, the homelessness of migrant workers in Russia has been the subject of repeated reports from the Ambassador in Russia. The situation is pitiable in the extreme. Now, since the Russian workers’ faction has initiated a relief committee, half of the funds needed for the relief of Chinese migrants should naturally be be shared by us. Currently, the Russian currency is weak and 100,000 rubles is equivalent to only around 40,000 yuan. Could the [Finance] Ministry, against all odds, muster 40,000 yuan to be delivered to the Foreign Ministry, which can be remitted to the Russian capital ready for use? Hoping for a swift reply so that a telegram can be sent to Ambassador Liu.’

Regarding the Chinese workers in Russia, the Ambassador in Russia has repeatedly telegrammed to report about their homelessness, which is indeed extremely pitiable. Half of the necessary relief funds of 200,000 rubles will be borne by the Russian government. The remaining half, equivalent to 40,000 yuan, should naturally be disbursed by our Ministry. However, finances are currently strained and military expenses copious. This Ministry cannot but prioritise these urgent expenditures. The aforementioned funds for the relief of Chinese workers must wait until the Ministry’s revenues are somewhat improved, whereupon they will be granted [emphasis mine – ed.]. For Your Ministry’s consideration.

Message from the Finance Ministry, 11 June 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 113-114.
Map of warlord territories, 1917-1918. Source.

In theory, Russia’s Provisional Government furnished Beijing with a golden opportunity to resolve the crisis facing Chinese wartime workers. Both the Petrograd Soviet and city duma had put forward proposals for the relief of these workers, even going so far as to offer the considerable sum of 100,000 rubles for their welfare. Within the Chinese community in Petrograd, a diaspora association had been formed to take action on the worker issue. It seemed that the workers would have some protection at last.

Nevertheless, it must be remembered that deep political problems underlay China’s aspirations and undermined any opportunistic attempts to exploit Russia’s instability. Revolutionary Russia may have been confused and volatile, but post-Qing China was itself undergoing a lengthy process of political fragmentation. Since 1911 the country had been divided among rival warlord factions, most notably with the Guomintang regime in the south completely denying the legitimacy of the Beijing (or Beiyang) government in the north. Even within the northern and southern regimes, warlord factions vied for control over individual territories or the seat of government. Military conquest of rival factions was constantly on the agenda, be it in terms of a final settlement of the north-south divide, a provincial power grab, or a coup in Beijing. The result was a series of factional wars, culminating in Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition in 1927.

Hence, the Beijing government’s avowed interest in the welfare of Chinese emigrants could come second to its military ambitions, as made abundantly clear by these two documents. President Li Yuanhong’s apparent generosity in the first document belies China’s own political disorder in summer 1917: Li and premier Duan Qirui had been locked in conflict over China’s participation in World War I, culminating in Li’s dismissal of Duan in late May. Duan appealed to his warlord allies for support, while Li, fearing an armed showdown, leaned on the monarchist Zhang Xun for support. Even as the Ministries haggled over the 100,000 ruble contribution, Zhang was preparing to march into Beijing to restore the Qing dynasty. Unfortunately, in the midst of these events, the issue of wartime workers seemed all too remote.

There is a rather more satisfactory ending to the Foreign Ministry’s request. Zhang’s forces took Beijing on June 13; in the face of Zhang’s restorationist agenda, Li engaged in a hurried volte-face and called on Duan to retake the capital. With Li and Duan somewhat reconciled, the Finance Ministry was prevailed upon to disburse the 30,000 yuan shortfall. The money eventually reached Ambassador Liu in September 1917, four months after the proposal from the Petrograd Soviet.

4 thoughts on “The Warlord Dimension

  1. Pingback: The Petrograd Soviet and Chinese Workers – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: A Warlord, His Sugar and the Russians(?) Who Made It – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  3. Pingback: Chinese Migrants in Provisional Government Petrograd – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  4. Pingback: China’s Contributions to the Siberian Intervention – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s