A Chinese Warship for Vladivostok

The port of Vladivostok during the American intervention c. 1918-1919, showing some of the Allied warships docked. Source.

In a previous post, we looked at how the Chinese community in Vladivostok braced itself for disaster before the Bolshevik Revolution reached the city. As November turned to December, however, tensions continued to rise. The Vladivostok Soviet had been especially radical throughout the summer and autumn, attacking anarchists, Kadets, Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, shutting down rival newspapers and driving other parties from local government. It was one of the first in the Russian Far East to support a transfer of power after the November Revolution. Worse still, Petrograd’s moves towards a separate peace presaged a decisive diplomatic rupture. To many Chinese in the city, moderate solutions no longer seemed appropriate.

Consul-general Lu Shiyuan was only one source of authority and information in Vladivostok. Another was the Vladivostok general chamber of commerce, which represented a large and wealthy Chinese merchant community with links across the Russian Far East and Manchuria. Chinese traders in Vladivostok alone had an estimated wealth of 45 million gold rubles; net worth aside, they also saw themselves as front-line troops in China’s attempt to strengthen its economy and, by extension, the country as a whole. This gave the Vladivostok chamber a degree of assertiveness that other, smaller diaspora organisations did not possess.

The chamber’s response to events in Vladivostok was unequivocal. Using Lu as their mouthpiece, they jettisoned diplomatic approaches for a show of force: China should send a warship to the city.





Railway rolling stock in Vladivostok, c. 1919. Source.

Since the [March] revolution in Russia, autocracy was overturned and order was lost, the people misunderstand their freedom and take law and discipline to be nothing more than dirt. Servants, too, want equality, seeing hierarchy and virtue as dross. Those members who foolishly support the parties mostly defend their own faction and attack others. The likes of those who vie for power also abuse their offices for private gain, allowing positions to proliferate and producing leadership ‘musical chairs’. Added to this is three years of bitter war, the people are oppressed and impoverished, prices rise unceasingly, livelihoods grow more precarious by the day. Taking advantage of this, hooligans are constantly plotting a rebellion. Moreover, recently the new government in Petrograd has begun peace talks with the German army. If and when this is accomplished, relations with the Allies could radically change, and then who knows how the diplomatic storm will play out. Ever since news of the peace talks arrived, Chinese and Russians have been in a panic, countless false rumours abounded. It was as if something lurked in every corner and shadow. Now the Vladivostok general chamber of commerce writes:

‘We have now heard that the workers and soldiers of this city will launch a second revolution, since their country will soon conduct separate peace negotiations with the Germans and also due to the stalemate in party conflict. Although this comes from their own propaganda, rumours are rife and people are on tenterhooks, everyone is fearful and there is a growing sense that one does not know what the next day will bring. If and when this becomes a reality, it will indeed have serious consequences for the lives and property of our diaspora in Russia. Hence, on Sunday a general meeting was held that proposed to ask our Consul to come up with a plan for protection. We humbly request your consideration of this matter. As for how best to ask our government to swiftly devise a plan for protection, we defer to your judgement. Moreover, American and Japanese warships are berthed in Vladivostok, and it is still unknown if they have come because of this. It is only because of the importance of the matter that we send this message.’

Previously, due to the rumour and tension in Vladivostok, joint discussions were held with the consular corps, and an official letter was addressed to the commissar of the Maritime Province regarding the effective protection of foreign residents. According to the reply, order could be maintained in Vladivostok and means of protection would be drawn up if the need arose. I consider the Russian official’s so-called protection to be mere empty words. Thankfully the peace in Vladivostok has not yet been disrupted but, if an uprising suddenly occurs, the Russians will be preoccupied with their own affairs and will naturally be unable to exert themselves in this direction. They will have no way to protect the lives and property of our diaspora. The thought of this strikes fear in my heart. For then the chamber’s words, the ‘plan for protection’, will also ring hollow. Regarding how to manage this, I spoke with the leader of the chamber, who said that the matter of protection was indeed very difficult and, if a way could be found to send a warship to patrol and berth in Vladivostok, the diaspora could take heart a little and the Russians might be somewhat restrained.

The Vladivostok port now has one American warship berthed. As for Japanese warships, although they frequently came to Vladivostok transporting military materiel, none are now berthed here and the chamber’s message is misinformed. Following the arrival of the American warship in Vladivostok, moreover, during a previous meeting of the consular corps, the commander of Russia’s four-province Far Eastern military district came and stated that order could be maintained and, if foreign warships came to Vladivostok, it could easily cause panic among the Russian people. Hence, if our country’s warship could come to Vladivostok, it would naturally be welcomed by our diaspora, but on the Russian side it may be difficult to avoid causing suspicion or complications. But if it does not come, our diaspora will certainly lose hope. As for how this should be handled, I can only look to your judgement. If our country does indeed send a warship, it should be in accordance with the regulations on foreign warships visiting Russian ports or touring in open waters, issued by the Russian government and forwarded by this consulate on 15 June 1914. This will aid in discussions and prevent misunderstandings. The above is presented for your kind consideration.

Letter from Lu Shiyuan, 12 December 1917 (sent 5 December). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: chubing Xiboliya, pp. 3-4.

Vladivostok was both a strategically important port and a terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, channelling military supplies to the front in European Russia. Large quantities of materiel – almost all of American origin – were stockpiled in the city’s warehouses, stores that could potentially fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks. An American railway commission, headed by John F. Stevens, was overseeing operations on the Trans-Siberian. Political instability in Vladivostok threatened Allied strategic interests as much as the Chinese diaspora.

Japanese battleship Iwami, formerly the Russian Orel, captured at Tsushima 1905. Source.

The Vladivostok chamber was therefore not alone in calling for a warship. Acting on their consul Kikuchi Yoshiro’s advice, the Japanese soon sent two battleships – the Iwami and Asahi – citing concerns over their diaspora. The British ambassador in Tokyo also appealed to London and the HMS Suffolk was ordered up from Hong Kong. The American warship mentioned in the letter – armoured cruiser USS Brooklyn – left Vladivostok in December but was quickly recalled. Although these ships arrived in January and February, too late to prevent the Bolshevik takeover of power in Vladivostok, they allowed for rapid deployment of troops in the Intervention of summer 1918.

As much as the Vladivostok chamber might have wished for the Chinese to take the initiative, however, Beijing was paralysed. The ongoing warlord conflict in China absorbed all its military resources and no warship could be found. The consequence, as we shall see, was a split between the hawkish Chinese diaspora and their beleaguered consul-general, forced into inaction as the Foreign and Naval Ministries exchanged a war of words.

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