How is the recent situation in the Russian capital, are the various legations safe? Has the new government already been formed? Please wire the Ministry when possible.Letter from the Foreign Ministry to Ambassador Liu Jingren, 12 November 1917. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 175.
Unlike in March, communications between Petrograd and Beijing were severely disrupted when the bolsheviks staged their coup in November. The Foreign Ministry was clearly aware that something was amiss, perhaps through reports from other diplomats or from Harbin, but no word arrived from Ambassador Liu in Petrograd for three weeks after the Revolution. On 14 and 16 November, two telegrams came in from from the Chinese embassy in Denmark stating that Kerensky’s forces had begun fighting the bolsheviks and the latter would soon be defeated. In the meantime, no clear information came directly from the capital.
The Ministry’s immediate concern was the prospect of a separate peace. Not only was this of paramount importance to the war effort – China had abandoned neutrality and joined the wartime Alliance only three months before, in August – it had a direct impact on the thorny issue of German concessions in Chinese territory and the possible expansion of Japanese military presence. China hoped that German concessions would be returned in the event of an Allied victory, something a separate peace might upset. And while Japan had refrained from large-scale military involvement in WWI thus far, a Russian betrayal might tempt the Japanese to put boots on the ground in Northeast Asia.
In the absence of news from Petrograd, deputy foreign minister Gao Erqian met with Japanese ambassador Hayashi Gonsuke on 16 November. Both men agreed that the situation in Russia was unsettled and uncertain. Gao then raised the issue of a separate peace and asked outright if Japan would intervene in that eventuality:
Japan is different from the European countries, it possesses its full strength and moreover is closer to Russia, with railways that can transport troops. That is why I am posing this question.Meeting between Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian and Ambassador Hayashi, 16 November 1917. Ibid., p. 177.
Hayashi, a seasoned diplomat, said that Japan would have to discuss any intervention with the Allies. At any rate, a separate peace was unlikely; even if it were to occur, it could not be the sole reason for opening hostilities.
Both Gao’s and Hayashi’s statements would be borne out by future events, but in the meantime the communication floodgates finally opened. From 27 November Liu’s backlog of telegrams arrived thick and fast.
Recently, Russia’s internal conflict has been increasingly intense and the bolsheviks’ [lit. maximalists’ – ed.] strength has grown further, demanding to seize state power, hold peace talks, and use insurrection to enforce their will. The government is weak and will have difficulty suppressing them. I fear that an uprising is imminent. Please await further news.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 27 November 1917 (sent 7 November). Ibid., pp. 180-181.
The telegram of the 7th must have arrived. The bolsheviks have united the soldiers and workers in opposing the government. Through the newly-formed Military-Revolutionary Committee, they ordered that all government decrees that have not been approved by the Committee cannot be implemented. Yesterday they began their rebellion, capturing the treasury, seizing train stations, occupying postal and telegraph bureaux and the various ministry offices. At night they then besieged the Cabinet, bringing in warships from Kronstadt, firing a blank shot as a show of force. Before long the Cabinet was occupied and of the ministers two or three were arrested. The rest had accompanied the Prime Minister and left earlier, and fortunately were spared. Now the various organisations in the city are all in the hands of the revolutionaries. There have not yet been popular disturbances. More reports to come in time.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 28 November 1917 (sent 8 November). Ibid., p. 181.
Liu’s account of the revolutionary events is somewhat confused: Kerensky was in fact the only member of the Provisional Government to escape arrest and, while warships were indeed brought in from Kronstadt, the Aurora – which fired the legendary blank shot – had not itself arrived from that base. Nevertheless, it was correct in essentials and Liu’s subsequent reports turned to crucial diplomatic matters.
On the matter related in the telegram of the 22nd, that the Russian bolshevik government instructed Commander-in-Chief Dukhonin [N.N. Dukhonin – ed.] to begin peace talks with enemy forces. Now it is known that Dukhonin does not accept these instructions and has been dismissed. The bolsheviks have sent a junior officer, Krylenko [N.V. Krylenko, an ensign – ed.], instead.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 28 November 1917 (sent 23 November). Ibid., p. 181.
The Russian bolsheviks have long had the intention of publicising secret diplomatic materials. Recently, Trotsky announced that this had become a key issue for the Foreign Ministry and classified material has been successively published. As of yesterday, some of what the party newspaper has carried includes the 1915 aide-memoire on Constantinople and the Straits given by the Russian Foreign Ministry to the Chinese and French ambassadors, and secret telegrams between the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian ambassador in France from 1916 and 1917. Of those relating to our country, there is only the 24 February 1916 secret telegram from the Russian Foreign Ministry to the ambassador in France. It mentions the expulsion of German markets in China and that the matter is extremely urgent, but without the participation of Japan they cannot come to a resolution. As for the texts of the published documents, they will be checked and sent at a later date.Telegram from Liu Jingren, 28 November 1917 (sent 24 November). Ibid., p. 181.
German concessions and Japanese involvement were therefore very much on the minds of both Liu and the Foreign Ministry. Two solutions were tried. On the one hand, Beijing’s top-level diplomacy fell in line with that of the Allies, hoping to secure their goodwill and, in the longer term, to use America as a counterweight to Japan. As Allied hostility to the bolshevik regime grew ever more apparent, however, it became clear that military intervention would happen and Gao’s worst fears about the Japanese could come true. In the months that followed, the Beijing government would undertake its own secret diplomacy with the Japanese over intervention in Russia – but that is a story for another time.