A Chinese Warship for Vladivostok

vladport
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.

竊查俄國自革命以后,專制推翻,秩序方亂,人民誤解自由,等法紀於塵土,隸役亦思平等,視綱常若棄髦,謬持黨派之徒,大抵黨同伐異,競爭權力之輩,又復假公濟私,遂至政出多門,官如傳舍。加以三年苦戰,民困財窮,物價既騰貴無已,生計乃日趨艱窘,宵小乘之,日謀起事。近更[?]俄京新政府與德軍開始議和,倘竟一旦告成,則聯軍國交,恐至驟生劇變,此后國際風雲,正不知變幻何若。此間自議和消息傳到后,中俄人民,大起恐慌,謠諑紛紜,殆難勝述,殊有八公山草木皆兵之勢。頃據海參崴中華總商會函稱:

「現聞本埠俄軍工兩界,以該國將與德國單獨議和,又兼黨爭相持不下,將有二次革命之興。此事雖屬出自宣傳,然風聲鶴唳,咸抱驚慌,大有朝夕莫保之勢。將來一旦演成事實,實與我旅俄僑民生命財產,所關至巨。故於禮拜經眾會議,擬請我公設法保護各等語,合及劇情仰懇鑒核,應如何電請我政府迅速設法保護之處,出自鈞裁。再,有日、美兩國軍艦,停泊崴口,是否亦為此事而來,尚不可知,第以事關重要,特並奉聞。等情。

據此,查崴埠前因風聲緊急,曾由此間領事團公同商酌,備具公函,照請海濱省郭米薩爾,切實保護僑民。旋准覆稱:崴埠治安可任維持,當設法隨時保護等語。查該俄員所稱保護,僅系空言,幸崴埠治安尚無變故,倘一旦事變驟生,則俄人自顧不暇,自屬無從為力,吾僑生命財產,無法保障,思之實可寒心。茲該會所稱設法保護云云,亦系空言,究應如何辦理,當經詢據該會會長答稱,保護一事,亦屬甚難,倘能酌派軍艦巡行來崴,則僑民可稍壯膽,俄人略有畏忌等語。

查崴埠港口,現泊有美國軍艦一艘,至日本軍艦,前雖因運送軍品時時來崴,現在並無停泊,該會所稱,當系誤傳。且美國軍艦到崴后,日前領事團會議,曾由俄國遠東四省軍區長出席該會,聲明此間治安可以維持,外國軍艦來崴,俄民易生恐慌等語。故吾國軍艦如能來崴,在崴僑民自屬歡迎,而在俄人方面,未免易生疑忌,或致有何枝節,但不來則僑民又多絕望。至究應如何辦理,惟有仰候鈞裁。至吾國果派來軍艦,應請察照本館三年六月十五日呈送俄政府頒定外國軍艦至俄國港口及水面觀光章程辦理,以資接洽,而免誤會。理合備文呈請,伏乞鑒核施行。

rollingstockvlad
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.

iwami
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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