After the March Revolution, the situation in Harbin was highly ambiguous. New legislative and executive structures, staffed by moderate merchants and professionals, coexisted with the considerable authority of the Chinese Eastern Railway administration, which was headed by tsarist holdover D.L. Horvath. In June 1917 the newly-formed Harbin Soviet was added to the political maelstrom. While the new legislature struggled to keep the status quo in the city, it refused any political innovation until the convening of the Constituent Assembly in Russia, even as its power was challenged by Horvath on the right and the Soviet on the left.
Because of the city’s location within China’s borders, events among the Russians in Harbin were of particular interest to Chinese officials. On one level, their impact on local law and order was immediate, unlike more remote goings-on in Vladivostok or Petrograd. On another level, they informed China’s active, ongoing efforts to reclaim sovereignty over the CER zone. This was a live issue which animated the Beijing government, warlords and merchants alike, and local actors were not averse to making gains at the Russians’ expense if the opportunity arose. The following message from Jilin Military Governor and warlord Meng Enyuan, re-paragraphed in the English translation, furnishes an early example of this opportunism.
From the Jilin Military Governor’s office, regarding disturbances in Harbin and the temporary dispatch of troops reorganised as a police unit as a compromise measure, in order to protect merchants and secure the area. Since the Russian revolution, the soldiers of that country have been aggressive and free, all are shirking their duties and unlawful behaviour sometimes occurs. Russian officials can hardly restrain them. Our merchants and travellers often suffer their encroachments. Bandits from the interior, taking advantage of the [Russian soldiers’] clout, will stealthily increase their presence and one fears they will bring trouble.
The existing allocation of police is already extremely meagre and insufficient. Moreover, the transfer of troops is not permitted by the [CER] treaty. If a way is not found to maintain things, households, merchants and travellers will find themselves in no man’s land. I have discussed a solution with the provincial governor several times, namely, to follow the Tianjin precedent and dress troops in policemen’s clothes, deploying them in that town [Harbin] to patrol all areas where our merchants live, where they will act as protection and deterrent. I instructed that the 2nd Mixed Brigade, as well as two companies from the First Battalion of the First Infantry Regiment stationed in Fuyu County, should be placed under the command of Battalion Commander An Shaobin, issued with new uniforms on 30 May, and dispatched to Harbin. Chief of the provincial police Zhao Xianzhang and Regimental Commander Li Enrong were instructed to draw up guidelines regarding its procedures and authority, allowing it to work in concert with the police and to ensure proper conduct. Separately, an official seal and stamp were issued as a mark of authority. This formation was designated as a guard unit, with the battalion commander renamed as the captain of the guard and the company commanders as patrol officers. Matters of report would be conveyed from the Regiment to the Brigade and presented in the proper order. In the documentation, the Regiment should be referred to as the headquarters, to reflect the reality of the situation.
Ever since the unit reached Harbin, the area has been very peaceful and people are calm. However, all manner of goods are unusually expensive there and the salaries of both officers and men are not enough to meet their expenses. There was no alternative but to supplement their allowance. Together with the costs of changing their uniforms, renting a base etc, I have instructed that the funds will be paid out by the finance bureau according to a formal itemised report. Once the situation has settled and police strength is ample, further enquiries can be made before recalling [the troops] to their original posts. The origins of this deployment are set out for Your Ministry’s reference and I await any further instructions.Message from Jilin Military Governor Meng Enyuan, 2 July 1917 (sent 29 June). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 120.
This document dovetails nicely with an earlier one from Binjiang circuit intendant Li Hongmo. Li, a civilian official under Meng’s authority, had earlier reported on the March Revolution in Harbin, expressing concern about a possible deterioration in law and order after these events. Although Horvath maintained that he was in charge of the situation, Li was sceptical about his powers over the Russian guard in the railway zone. This scepticism was borne out and Meng – who had ultimate control over the deployment of Chinese troops in the province – took matters into his own hands. A Tianjin native, Meng was able to draw upon experiences in another semi-colonial city to deploy Chinese troops to Harbin in direct and knowing contravention of the Sino-Russian railway treaty. In fact, Li’s earlier telegram suggests that Meng may have planned this as early as March itself, when Chief of Police Zhao had first been placed on alert.
Meng may have taken the initiative in this matter, but his actions subsequently received the full approval of the Beijing government. It also seems that his troops were not directly challenged by the Russian authorities, perhaps because they confined themselves to patrolling areas where Chinese merchants congregated rather than making obvious inroads into the concession zone. Nevertheless, the emphasis on safeguarding Chinese merchants highlights another important trend: the use of civilian protection to achieve wider political aims. As this example demonstrates, the need to defend Chinese citizens or migrants could be used as an unimpeachable justification for a wide range of policy goals, from the deployment of troops to trade embargoes and diplomatic leverage. In the Harbin case, it was intimately linked to the restoration of Chinese control over the CER zone.
The Chinese were not alone in using such tactics. During this period, the Japanese were also adept at linking diaspora protection to political gains. For Chinese officials, however, this was a particularly compelling weapon in their diplomatic arsenal given the large number of their compatriots in the Sino-Russian borderlands. For Meng, this was another leaf in an opportunistic playbook at a time of Russian weakness.