Policing Post-Tsarist Harbin

harbinpolice
Seat of the Harbin administration, where the railway police was headquartered from 1908. Source.

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.

吉林督軍公署咨為哈埠不靖,暫撥陸軍改編警備隊,變通辦理,以衛商民,而安地方,咨請查照事:案查自俄國革命以來,該國軍人盛倡自由,皆不執行職務,且時有不規則之行為,俄官莫能制止。我國商民行旅,往往受其侵害,內地胡匪,趨腥赴羶,亦將潛滋匿跡,為患堪虞。額設警察本極單弱,不敷分布,而移駐陸軍則為條約所不許,設不設法維持,則民戶商旅將成甌脫。迭與省長籌商審處,按從前天津辦法,以陸軍改易警察服裝,撥往該埠,凡我商民住在處所分段梭巡,實行保護彈壓,令行第二混成旅,就駐防扶余縣之步一團第一營內撥調兩連,由營長安紹彬率帶,於五月三十日改易服裝,開撥到哈。飭據通省警務處處長趙憲章、團長李恩榮會擬辦事權限規則,與該處警察聯合一氣,以期周妥,分別刊給關防鈴記,以昭信守。此項隊伍,即定名曰警備隊,營長改稱隊長,連長曰巡官,遇有呈報事件,仍由團轉旅,以次遞呈,其行文程式,對本團部則稱司令部,以符名實。

自該隊抵哈以來,地方甚為安謐,人心亦極鎮定。惟該處雜物昂貴異常,官長兵丁薪餉所入不敷用度,不得不額外津貼,及換易服裝、租賃駐所等費,飭由財政廳籌撥,准其作正開報。以俟時局大定,警力充足,再行察酌情形調回原防。所有編制原由,理合備文咨請大部查核備案,核復施行。

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.

Meng_Enyuan

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.

One thought on “Policing Post-Tsarist Harbin

  1. Pingback: March 1917 in Harbin – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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