The Warlord Dimension

warlordcartoon
“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.

自上年俄國因修路砍木工程,需用華工,由義成公司與俄招工人訂立合同,代招華工二萬余人,前往工作,連同俄人在東省鐵路沿線自行招往者,據駐俄劉公使報告,已達十萬之數。上項華工到俄后,流離轉徙,其苦萬狀,迭經劉公使報告到部。業由本部於駐俄使館添設查工委員二員,專事調查工人受苦情狀,以備與俄政府交涉。

茲復准劉公使來電,以俄政府改革以來,工黨勢盛,亟宜乘機補救,爰提倡商學工聯合會,選派會員,與俄工黨工人協會接洽,俄工會主張由駐俄使館或華人聯合會派員駐扎適要地點,照料華工,其棲息、遣送、濟助、照料等經費,約需二十萬盧布,彼此各竭心力,擔任籌款,以濟要需。俄人既肯分任籌款,在我自應認籌半數,以維僑困,請政府核示前來。

當經本部咨請財政部,照撥四五萬元,折合十萬盧布,以便匯付俄京,俾濟工人之困乏,尚未准財政部咨復。事關救濟十萬華僑生命,倘蒙大總統憫念僑工現狀,慨助若干,以示提倡,並令行財政部照撥四五萬元,俾蘇涸鮒,仁風所被,當不獨十萬僑工感激大總統恩意已也。

[批]:本大總統捐一萬元,其余由財政部籌撥。

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.

准貴部咨開:

「接准駐俄劉公使電稱,華工被虐,迭向俄政府交涉無效,現值工黨勢盛,亟宜乘機補救。茲據俄國工黨會會長稱,擬會同使館在適要地方,派員照料遣送濟助等事,預算經費須二十萬盧布,請中國政府分任等語,請示辦法前來。查上次赴俄工人流離情狀,迭准俄公使報告,至堪憫惻。今既俄工黨發起救濟公會,所需濟助華僑費用,自應由我分任其半。現在俄幣低落,十萬盧布合銀元衹四萬有奇,咨部於無可設法之中,勉措四萬元,撥解過部,以憑匯奇俄京備用。並希先行核復,俾電復劉公使。等因前來。

查赴俄華工,既准[駐]俄公使迭電報告流離情狀,至堪憫惻,所需濟助費二十萬盧布,由俄政府分任一半,其余一半約合國幣四萬元,本部自應照撥。惟目下金融緊迫,軍餉浩繁,本部不得不先其所急,前項濟助華工用款,應俟部庫周轉稍靈,再行酌核辦理。相應咨復貴部查照可也。

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.
warlordmap1917
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

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