Chinese Migrants in Provisional Government Petrograd

In previous posts, I looked at the plight of Chinese wartime workers and the attempts by both Ambassador Liu Jingren and the Petrograd Soviet to help them. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1917, however, Russia’s escalating political and economic crises hampered these efforts, to say nothing of the Chinese government’s own internal troubles. Chinese labour recruits continued to stream into Petrograd as Russia’s war effort collapsed.

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Chairman of the Association of Chinese in Russia Liu Zerong, c. 1922. From the collection of the Heihe Memorial Museum of the Chinese Diaspora in Russia.

To coordinate relief on the Chinese side, the Association of Chinese in Russia (中華旅俄聯合會) was founded by eight students on 1 May 1917. The Association was in keeping with other diaspora organisations established since late-Qing times to cater to community interests. Like its counterparts worldwide, it protected migrants in areas which Chinese official authority could not reach and, to some extent, positioned itself within a wider movement to enhance China’s international standing. A strong state, after all, could not be represented abroad by starving, suffering and fearful emigrants.

Support from the Petrograd authorities allowed the Association to carry out a range of activities in the first few months of its existence. Its September 1917 report, excerpted here, illustrates some of the conditions that the Petrograd diaspora faced in the tumultous months before the bolshevik revolution, and the attention given to the issue by the municipality.

The first part of the report dealt with the pressing issue of wartime workers:

安置在俄京華工之事件,於本年四月間,俄人與內務部召集專為討論旅俄京華工情形之臨時會議,其中主席者為內務部次長阿維諾夫,本會會長亦曾與會,開會時首由俄京自治會之代表提議在彼得格勒華工之苦狀,經公眾議定,於俄京自治所之中開一安置旅俄京華工之專門會,此會定由俄國各機關、中華使館及本會等代表所組成,由本會公推會長為代表,專門會推舉該自治會委員尼嘎諾羅夫Nikanoff為會長。經此專門會決定在俄京城設一華工棲留所,該所經費由俄京自治會籌出七萬盧布,本會籌出一萬盧布,以為辦理該所之用。嗣因該會長脫離自治會,復選該自治會會長嘎列什根Galioshkin為專門會會長。五月初間,因覓房不易,暫覓得僅容三百人之小房一處,棲留所始行開辦。至六月初,復覓得容一千之房,隨遷移此房,該所擬定歸於該自治會管理,所有該所內食物一切,俱歸自治會供給,但工人歸本會管理。旋由本會雇派通事二名,司帳一名,常住該所,以監理一切。所有棲留所收留之工人,分為三種:(甲)遣送回國。(乙)代覓工作。(丙)病工送往醫院療治。

On the matter of settling Chinese workers in Petrograd [lit. the Russian capital – ed.]. In April this year, the Russian Interior Ministry convened an ad hoc meeting specifically to discuss the conditions of Chinese workers there. Its chairman was Interior Minister [N.N.] Avinov; the chairman of this Association was also present at the meeting. During the meeting, the representative of the city duma began by raising the dire circumstances facing Chinese workers in Petrograd, and it was generally decided to form a special committee in the duma premises for the settlement of these Chinese workers. It was resolved that this committee would be made up of representatives from the various Russian authorities, the Chinese embassy and the Association. The Association elected its chairman as its representative. The special committee elected duma member Nikanov [sic, probably I.V. Nikanorov] as chairman.

This special committee resolved to set up a shelter for Chinese workers in Petrograd, with the city duma providing 70,000 rubles for its operating expenses and the Association contributing 10,000, in order to manage the shelter. Subsequently, since the [previous] chairman left the duma, duma leader Galioshkin [sic, not sure of identity] was elected chairman. At the beginning of May, because it was not easy to find a building, a small one that could accommodate only 300 was temporarily sought and the shelter was opened. Then, at the beginning of June, a building was found that could accommodate 1,000 and [the shelter] was moved there. It was proposed that the shelter would be managed by the duma, with all the food etc supplied by it, but the workers would be looked after by the Association. The Association immediately hired two interpreters and an accountant to stay in the shelter to supervise everything. All the workers in the shelter may be divided into three groups: a) Those to be repatriated; b) Those for whom we are seeking work; c) Sick workers to be sent to hospital for treatment.

Letter from the Association of Overseas Chinese in Russia, 25 September 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 144-145.
20180811_161109
Chinese workers in the Ussuri gold mines. From the collection of the Heihe Memorial Museum of the Chinese Diaspora in Russia.

The report also touched on difficulties with the diaspora community as a whole:

在俄京之華僑事件,可分兩種:(甲)食物難購之事件。凡在俄京旅居者,所有一切食物,均須持券購買,因由本會向俄機關取來購食物券,專發華僑,每月不下五千余張,現本會又鑒於俄地食物非常昂貴,擬籌辦組合食物機關,專備接濟華僑。(乙)警團及審判庭華僑訴訟之事宜。因旅俄華僑不諳俄語者居多,遇有華僑互相糾葛,及與俄人涉訟之事,該警團及審判庭電知本會,本會分別事之輕重,遣派通事或會員,前往為之辯護。至關於細微事件,該警團一經送到本會,本會分別代為排解,即行釋放。倘無此會之設,則華僑受苦不堪勝計矣。如有華僑與俄人、或對華人各項糾葛等事,直赴本會控訴者,亦經本會分別排解,必須兩方平允,此項事件,日有數起之多。更有一種匪人,加雜於工人之內,希圖搶竊,一經本會查覺,即行轉請該警團襄助,查拏究辦。復經俄警團通飭各處,嗣后凡華工入俄京者,須經本會將該人護照簽字,方為有效,華人中前經本會查有販賣鴉片及吸食鴉片聚賭抽頭者,分別勸罰,現在此風較前稍細。嗣后遇有拏獲匪人,如案情較重者,擬設法送回本國,按律懲辦,以維法權。自裡嘎失守后,俄京居民紛紛外遷,所有旅俄京華人,似亦應預為設法,本會擬將此項華人送出俄京,脫離險境,如實在不願出離俄京者聽。

Matters concerning the Chinese diaspora in Petrograd can be divided into two types. A) The difficulty of purchasing food. All residents of Petrograd must buy all their food with [ration] coupons. Hence, the Association has obtained purchasing coupons for food from the Russian authorities to be distributed specially to the Chinese diaspora. No less than 5,000 per month [are distributed]. Now, since food is extraordinarily expensive in Russia, the Association plans to form a food committee to relieve the Chinese. B) Proceedings involving Chinese with the militia and the courts. As most Chinese in Russia are not well-versed in the Russian language, when there are mutual disputes among the diaspora or when they are involved in lawsuits with Russians, the militia and courts inform the Association. Based on the severity of the case, the Association sends an interpreter or a member to act as defence. Regarding trivial matters, the militia instantly refers these to the Association, which then mediates individually on their behalf and they are soon released. Had the Association not been established, the Chinese diaspora would indeed have suffered immeasurably. Chinese migrants who have disputes with Russians or [other] Chinese and who bring their cases directly to the Association are also mediated individually in a manner equitable to both parties. Such matters arise as many as several times a day.

Further, there was a breed of bandit that mixed in with the workers with the intent to rob. Once these were detected by the Association, militia assistance was immediately requested that they may be caught and investigated. Following this, the Russian militia instructed that thereafter all Chinese workers entering Petrograd must have their passports signed by the Association to be valid. Any among the Chinese whom the Association discovered to be selling opium or consuming opium, gambling and taking commissions [therefrom] were admonished or punished in turn, and this trend has reduced somewhat. From now onwards, it was proposed that any arrested bandit whose crimes are more severe should be repatriated and sentenced according to the law, to uphold legal rights.

Since the fall of Riga, residents of Petrograd have been leaving in droves. As for all the Chinese in Petrograd, it seems that a contigency plan should also be made, and the Association proposes to send them out of the city and away from danger. Those who absolutely do not wish to leave will be allowed [to remain].

Ibid., pp. 145-146.

The report showed how the post-revolutionary city authorities were willing to tackle the issues facing the Chinese diaspora as an integral part of municipal governance. Already grappling with Petrograd’s food supply, the city duma wished to fund, manage and provision a shelter for Chinese coolies; in so doing, it drew diaspora organisations directly into the administrative process. This was a far cry from the tsarist government’s laissez-faire, if not outright discriminatory policies towards the Chinese. Liberal to left-wing politics, revolutionary instability and the arrival of thousands of wartime workers in the Russian metropolis combined to produce a shift in approach towards administering Chinese migrants.

At the same time, the report mentioned some of the perennial problems within the Chinese community – opium, gambling, crime, the language barrier – that could be found not only in revolutionary Petrograd but throughout the global diaspora. The Association’s proposals also represented tried and tested solutions: internal dispute resolution and repatriation. Its suggestion that suspects should be tried in China and not in Russian courts was justified by an appeal to “legal rights”, a reference to the principle of extraterritoriality exercised by the western powers in China itself. Even as Russian and Chinese cooperation seemed to be getting off the ground, therefore, there was still a strong sense that migrants were Chinese citizens, with all the contemporary legal prerogatives emanating therefrom.

tiraspol
Chinese internationalist troops, led by Sun Fuyuan, with the Tiraspol Detachment. From the collection of the Heihe Memorial Museum of the Chinese Diaspora in Russia.

I’m tempted to think of how diasporic “social ills” were dealt with in Hong Kong, Penang, Singapore and Batavia, where colonial authorities endorsed or led efforts to regulate labour migration, crime and the trafficking of women in tandem with Chinese community leaders. Revolutionary Petrograd was certainly a different prospect altogether, but could a liberal Russian regime have adopted similar policies eventually? As it was, the November Revolution soon put paid to these relief efforts and the bolshevik regime, fighting for its life, had precious few resources to spare. Like many of its charges, the Association soon learnt to “speak soviet” in order to gain access to these resources and survive the vicissitudes of the Civil War.

4 thoughts on “Chinese Migrants in Provisional Government Petrograd

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