A Warlord, His Sugar and the Russians(?) Who Made It

Envelope from the Hulan Sugar Refinery, possible date 1911-1927. Source.

As the archival sources are somewhat sparse in the lead-up to the July Days – Beijing in June 1917 was, after all, in the throes of a full-scale political crisis – this post makes a small detour to an interesting standalone document from later in the summer. In August 1917, Manchurian potentate and leader of the Fengtian warlord clique Zhang Zuolin wrote to the Foreign Ministry regarding a new contract for the Russian staff at the Hulan Sugar Refinery, located in a district of Harbin.

In Manchuria, the cultivation of sugar beets and the production of sugar therefrom were intimately linked to Russian imperial influence. Sugar beets were introduced to the region by Polish entrepreneurs, who established a refinery in Acheng around 1908. The Hulan facility was its main Chinese-owned competitor. Also founded in 1908 as Fuhua Sugar Refinery, a limited company, it was taken over by the Manchurian authorities in 1911 and renamed the Three Eastern Provinces Hulan Sugar Refinery. Lack of specialist manpower, however, obliged the Hulan Refinery to employ Russian nationals. This document sets out some of the administrative hurdles involved.

(Unfortunately, the names of all the Russian staff are listed in Chinese transliteration, making it difficult to determine who they were. Given the heavy involvement of Poles in Manchuria’s sugar industry, it is not unlikely that they were in fact Polish.)






Records show that the Three Eastern Provinces Hulan Sugar Refinery in August 1915 employed the Russian Ganaersiji [Konarskii?] as its chief technician. Now, the factory manager has conveyed that this technician has resigned due to illness, asking that the original contract be voided. I approved this and instructed that replacements be arranged. Here is the reply:

‘Regarding the implementation of [your] instructions to arrange for technicians for the post. Our Refinery wrote that Chief Technician Ganaersiji had resigned and left the facility, returning the original contract. We then received your instructions that Ganaersiji’s resignation and the return of the contract were noted. As for how the refining operatons should be arranged, plans should be drawn up in order to avoid disruptions when the time came. Having received this, we complied and carried it out.

Although our Refinery’s existing Russian technicians and workmen are paid out of the public purse, their presence at the Refinery was due to Chief Technician Ganaersiji, who employed them based on the contract. Now that said Chief Technician has resigned, and now that approval has been granted to abolish the original contract, these technicians and workmen will naturally lose their capacity to work in the Refinery as a result. However, sugar refining is a specialist skill and capable people must be found abroad. With the European War, further recruitment is extremely difficult. It is only because of this that we are retaining some existing staff after careful consideration: three technicians and eight workmen, five fewer than in the original contract. All are continuing in their posts to avoid disruption.

Further, as production matters are considerable, if there is no chain of command or responsible superior, shirking will be unavoidable when issues arise. This is certainly not a prudent course of action. Mechanic Mianlichaerke, refining specialist Yashiqieer and chemist Luojinbier are all three well-skilled and honest in character, and were very capable in the refining operations last year. If responsibilities are granted to them they will certainly succeed. After discussions with them, they all agreed to take on full responsibilities. A 16-point list of regulations was drawn up in Russian and each of them signed it. If matters prove too complicated and manpower is insufficient, then further assistants and workmen may be hired. It seems to us that this arrangement delegates responsibility without being financially extravagant. In the assignment of duties we kept to the principle of economising on public funds. As for whether this is appropriate, apart from instructing the appointees to continue at their posts and keeping the regulations on file, a translation is enclosed for your approval.’

A copy of the appendix is presented for Your Ministry’s reference.

The Catholic church in Hulan, built 1908. Source.

The attached contract provides a glimpse into the terms of employment for Russian staff. Written contracts were nothing new for Chinese firms, but it is interesting to see non-Chinese employees involved in longstanding contractual practices. Of particular note is the emphasis on appointing managers taking “full responsibility” for operations, a practice then prevalent among many Chinese firms. Under Point 12, moreover, the Refinery’s profits were to be shared among technical specialists as well as workmen, in addition to their salaries. This was in keeping with Chinese business practices of the time and considered unusual by non-Chinese entrepreneurs.


1. These regulations must be honoured by all Russian technicians and workmen, with the provisions as below.
2. Technicians etc are responsible for all production duties in the refinery (however, regarding items necessary for the work, technicians are to inform the factory managers in advance to prepare them promptly. If not, the responsibility will be borne by those causing the disruption.)
3. In all production matters, technicians must pull together, assisting one another and working in concert. If there are differences in opinion, the decision lies with the factory manager.
4. Those with error-free work will be considered for awards. Conversely, [those making errors] will be dismissed as a sign of fairness.
5. Technicians will direct the work within the refinery.
6. The promotion or demotion of Russian technicians and workmen will be carried out by the factory manager.
7. Both Russian technicians and workmen may not resign and leave the refinery during the production process, as well as for two months before. At other times, those who wish to resign must give one month’s notice to the refinery.
8. If the factory wishes to cut back on Russian technicians and workmen, it must give one month’s notice and give two months’ compassionate pay.
9. Any Russian technician or workman who violates refinery regulations and has been jointly ruled on by the Chinese staff and technicians can be dismissed at any time. Moreover, they will not receive the pay set out in Point 8.
10. Russian technicians are entitled to two months’ holiday a year, workmen to two months’ holiday every two years. The allocation of dates will be decided after the technicians have discussed and applied for them with the factory manager, for his approval.
11. If Chinese workers apply for leave, their supervisor must obtain the technicians’ agreement before applying to the factory manager for approval.
12. At the end of the production process, if the business proves profitable, Russian technicians and workmen will receive bonuses. The total amount will depend on diligence and level of skill shown. This will be determined by the factory manager before seeking the Governor’s [Zhang Zuolin’s] approval.
13. Apart from essential work, if opinions arise, technicians should present them directly to the factory manager and workmen to the technicians, who will forward them and await a decision.
14. Technicians etc will serve as voluntary teachers for students studying the production process at the refinery and will teach them the skills quickly.
15. Russian technicians and staff will receive medical care and medicines.
16. These regulations take effect with the signatures of the factory manager and technicians, and upon approval by the Governor.

Factory manager Bao Xing
Mechanic Mianlichaerke [Mel’nichak?]
Chemist Luojinbier
Refining specialist Yashiqieer

Deng Ruyan, Guo Tingyi and Hu Qiuyuan (eds.) Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: Dongbei
bianfang (1), Minguo liunian zhi banian. (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi
yanjiusuo, 1960), pp. 34-36.
Street in Hulan. Source.

Zhang’s degree of involvement in a single sugar refinery was not unusual. In fact, it was part of a coordinated programme of economic development involving railways, ports, textile mills, timber, soybean and coal on the one hand and more efficient taxation on the other. Capital, funds, manpower and technology were mustered and deployed by Zhang and his subordinates to grow the wealth of the Manchurian administration, partly in aid of military adventures to the south, but also as a counterweight to Russian and Japanese economic clout.

The Hulan Refinery, like Zhang’s own Manchurian project, was shortlived. In 1927, the falling price of sugar forced the Refinery to change tack, focusing on electricity generation and brewing instead. Following the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, it was absorbed into a larger sugar refining corporation and reduced to one of its production facilities. The refinery outfit was taken over by the Harbin municipality in 1948 and commenced operations again in 1949; today, its premises are occupied by the Heilongjiang University of Science and Technology’s gymnasium.

As for the Polish-founded sugar refinery in Acheng, which was under non-Chinese ownership until 1950, the following interview with the late Professor Gregory Grossman of UC Berkley sheds light on its operations:

One thought on “A Warlord, His Sugar and the Russians(?) Who Made It

  1. Jerzy

    Hulan sugar refinery was founded by Austrian-Hungarians
    The Polish names you mentioned are :
    Lubliner (probably Polish Jew)
    Catholic church in Hulan was built by the French Missionaires de Paris
    Before there was a chapel used by Poles before erecting their own church in Harbin


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