The embassy in Petrograd was only one locus of the Chinese presence in Russia. Another important centre was Vladivostok, home to a significant Chinese population, from wealthy merchants to itinerant seasonal labourers. From Vladivostok, a Chinese consul-general oversaw the entire Chinese community in the Russian Far East, a daunting task that placed him second only to the Ambassador. And like his Petrograd colleague, the Vladivostok consul worked together with other Allied representatives supervising the shipment of vital military materiel for Russia’s war effort.
A 19 November report from Consul Lu Shiyuan provides an interesting glimpse into a city on the cusp of revolution. The Red tide had yet to engulf the city, since soviet power was only declared in Vladivostok in December 1917. Allied warships bringing supplies to Vladivostok also forced would-be revolutionaries to tread carefully. Lu’s account, therefore, depicts the Chinese community readying itself for trouble, unsure of the balance of forces in the city and of when the storm would eventually break.
The recent situation in Vladivostok has been highly volatile and is of great significance. Here, [the consulate’s] various activities have been compiled into a single volume and presented for Your perusal.
Regarding the protection of the lives and property of the Chinese diaspora in Vladivstok
Sunmitted by Vladivostok consul-general Lu Shiyuan
Since Russia’s revolution, [they have] proclaimed liberty or misused freedom of action. Both workers and soldiers are especially domineering. The soldiers are completely insubordinate towards their superiors, and the workers are extremely oppressive towards capitalists. The people are restive and there is no order at all. Moreover there is a shortage of goods and prices are soaring. Most of the poor will soon be unable to get by, and the rich are especially uneasy. Western Russia’s uprisings and mutinies have therefore occurred again and again. Although Vladivostok is in the Far East and a rebellion has not yet broken out, the dire causes of rebellion are in fact accumulating and intensifying. Dangerous trends are everywhere; once they have matured there will be an immediate explosion, and I fear this is now being planned.
On a certain day it was widely rumoured that the poor had set a date for looting, and the Chinese community came en masse to discuss safeguards. I told them that all important documents should be securely hidden, such that if an uprising were to occur, they would furnish proof for requests for compensation. At the same time, the various shops were informed that when the poor came to buy goods, both sides should treat each other peaceably and not allow disasters to arise from small disputes. The date thankfully passed without an uprising, whereupon we were overjoyed, but then we suddenly heard that all the troops of the Fourth Regiment stationed in Vladivostok had voted to hold a special social-revolutionary meeting at a certain time and place to implement anarchism. For a while, rumours flew about that the entire city would be destroyed. Chinese and Russian alike ran hither and tither to warn each other, as if a great calamity would soon arrive. I was deeply afraid that the lives and property of the Chinese would soon be in grave danger. While meeting the Japanese consul on other matters, I took the opportunity to mention this, and he was also very worried. Then we also spoke with the British consul, whereupon it was decided that an official inquiry should be lodged with the Vladivostok administrative authorities in the name of the consular corps, asking what measures local officials were taking to protect the lives and property of foreign residents. The consuls elected me as leader to present the inquiry under our joint signatures.
The next day, the commissar [F. Skachkov – ed.] replied saying that when it came to issues of unrest, all necessary measures would be drawn up in order to protect the lives and property of foreign residents. At the same time, the workers’ and soldiers’ representative committee issued an announcement advising people not to go for the meeting, to avoid a great disturbance. That same day we also received instructions regarding an emergency curfew. Although there were still some people who went to the meeting, their numbers were fortunately few, and strict surveillance has finally brought calm to the hair-trigger state of alarm. Thus we could commend the situation in Vladivostok and rejoice for our Chinese community in the city. Indeed, this was especially due to the consul’s exertions in performing his duty to protect our diaspora, allowing him to stand before Your Ministry above him and the diaspora below. This, perhaps, is not insufficient grounds for self-consolation. Nevertheless, the crisis in Vladivostok has not yet been extinguished. Whether it will indeed be possible to ensure safety in future is still hard to predict.Letter from Vladivostok consul-general Lu Shiyuan, 27 November 1917 (sent 19 November). From Li Nianxuan, Li Zuohua, Xu Shuzhen, Guo Tingyi and Hu Qiuyuan (eds.) Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: chubing Xiboliya, Minguo liunian zhi banian. (Taipei: Zhongyang yanjiuyuan jindaishi yanjiusuo, 1984), pp. 1-2.
Lu’s report refers to an October meeting of the 4th Artillery Regiment to discuss “social revolution” and the confiscation of private property in Vladivostok. The official inquiry was signed by the Japanese, British, French and American consuls – as well as Lu himself – but the Regimental meeting turned out to be a damp squib. Despite the radicalisation of the army in Vladivostok, disorder was avoided at least for the time being.
Another interesting section of this report concerns the interactions between Chinese merchants and their “poor”, presumably Russian, customers. This could lend some credence to accusations of Chinese profiteering; of course, Russians were not the only targets, since Chinese labourers were also struggling with inflation and food shortages. Nevertheless, as we shall see later in the Civil War period, Chinese merchants in the Russian Far East were not averse to manipulating their prime position in supplying the region’s food to the community’s advantage.
The rest of Lu’s report did in fact deal with the distribution of food in Vladivostok. Conflict had broken out between Russians and Chinese over the rationing system, especially in the tense and physically crowded distribution centres. Chinese food shops had been inventoried, but some shopkeepers had been harassed by people claiming false credentials from the Food Supply Committee. The consulate had therefore been asked by the municipal authorities to draw up a comprehensive solution for the Chinese community. However, revolution arrived in the city before Lu could come up with a firm plan, and Lu himself would be replaced by a much more energetic consul-general, Shao Hengjun. Shao would preside over the dispatch of Chinese interventionary forces and a warship to Vladivostok, attempt to purge the diaspora community of its more unsavoury elements, and deal with the dizzying array of post-revolutionary regimes that sprang up after November 1917.