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