As the November Revolution continued its gradual eastward sweep, it carried in its wake hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrants who worked and traded in Russian territory. We have already seen how the Chinese diaspora reacted in Vladivostok, where the presence of Allied troops and the community’s own strength allowed it a greater degree of assertiveness. Vladivostok, however, was unique. In other Russian cities, the community was often less well established or protected by diplomatic officials, and hence less insulated from disorder.
Another centre of Chinese migration, Irkutsk, was an early locus of resistance to Red rule. Clashes between government and revolutionary forces took place even before the disbanding of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918. It was also a stronghold of moderate socialists, who were more sympathetic to Chinese migrants than their tsarist predecessors had been. The following report from incoming consul Wei Bo illustrated the opportunities missed with the outbreak of revolution.
渤於九月二十九日到伊后，伊即伊爾庫次克，用正式公文知照伊城俄督軍克君（A.N. Kruchlikov）省長拉君（ I.A. Lavrov）去后，逾四五日，約定時刻，往謁督軍。
After I arrived in Irkutsk on 29 September, when I went to meet the Russian governor and military governor [sic, Wei means krai commissar], they were extremely cordial, with the exception that they were very dissatisfied with Chinese workers. Now, I have come to an agreement with their representative such that Chinese workers abroad may avoid abuse by foreigners. Also, their foreign affairs official came to the consulate saying that the military governor had received a letter from the Russian ambassador in China, which said that since frequent shipments of opium were currently arriving in China from Russia, the Beijing Foreign Ministry had asked that they be strictly prohibited. Hence the commander had specially sent him to apologise, and in future they would guard against this rigorously. The details and discussion are hereby presented in a booklet for your consideration. With deepest regards, Wei Bo. 19 November.
Summary of the exchanges with the Russian military governor and governor, during the meetings upon Consul Wei’s arrival in Irkutsk
After I arrived in Irkutsk on 29 September and sent official notifications to Irkutsk military governor A.N. Kruchlikov [sic, A.N. Kruglikov] and governor I.A. Lavrov, four or five days later I arranged a time to meet the military governor.
Kruglikov: When did you arrive in Irkutsk? The weather here has been very cold, can you tolerate such bitter cold?
Wei: I previously studied in St Petersburg University for as long as eight years, and am already accustomed to such extreme cold. It does not bother me.
Kruglikov: Since you have studied in St Petersburg, your arrival now as consul is indeed most apt. I welcome you warmly. Now that you are here, there is one matter regarding which I would like to consult you.
Wei: If there is anything to be consulted, please let me know.
Kruglikov: There is a coal mine here which has as many as several thousand Chinese workers. They often do not carry passports with them, causing trouble among themselves and disobeying mine regulations. I am drawing up a plan to expel them.
Wei: I have not been here long and the circumstances of Chinese workers here are still not fully clear to me. Based on my observations, although Chinese workers here are numerous, they have all been recruited by the various mines and factories. They do not understand the language and hence mistakenly break the rules; this is unavoidable. Moreover, I think that not a few of them are law-abiding workers. I request that we discuss this together and deal with the matter in our respective ways. That would be more appropriate.
Kruglikov: Very well.
Wei: I have come here but am not well-versed in the situation. In dealing with issues in future, may the Military Governor lend his aid?
Kruglikov: In future matters I would be more than happy to help. (We take our leave.)
After I left the commander’s offices, I immediately went to meet foreign affairs official Ai [unclear who this is – ed.]. He is under the commander’s control and the Russian ambassador in China had earlier written to introduce us. He extended a brief greeting at first, then said that if the consul were to encounter difficulties here, he would do his utmost to help and we should not stand on ceremony. His attitude was most sincere and friendly. Taking leave of his office, I went to meet the governor. He began by exchanging pleasantries much as the military governor had. Then he said: “There are now very many Chinese workers in the various mines here. Many are not law-abiding, and it is not unheard of for there to be some among them who are workers in name, but are actually bandits, thieves and even murderers. Now that the consul is here and we may speak freely, I very much wish to consult you on this matter. Do you have any solution for resettling them?”
Wei: Although I have not been here many days, I have already heard something about the circumstances of Chinese workers here. In sum, although the Chinese workers here are numerous, the good are mixed in with the bad and my opinion is that further consideration must be given to the matter.
Lavrov: Since this is your opinion, I propose to send a representative to your consulate in the next few days to discuss this further in detail.
Wei: If this is your plan, I will await his arrival. (End of conversation. I took my leave and returned.)
After returning to the consulate, I started off by discussing the matter first with our charge d’affaires Xue. He said that the consulate had been running for almost two years and conducting matters with local officials had been extremely difficult. Now, this dialogue with the governor – who had even agreed to send a representative to the consulate for discussions – was the first decent event since the opening of the consulate. Hearing this, I was extremely pleased. It would be best to take this opportunity to discuss a fundamental solution with this representative, the solution being to ask the governor to grant the consulate the right to issue passports. Using this, a thorough census of the Chinese diaspora could be conducted, and Chinese bandits could be completely suppressed. To root out the bad, bring comfort to the good and perform a great service; it all lies in this one measure. I endorse this wholeheartedly.Letter from Irkutsk Consul Wei Bo, 26 December 1917 (sent 19 November). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 193-195.
Kruglikov and Lavrov were both Socialist Revolutionaries. Their complaints represented some of the perennial problems that accompanied Chinese labour migration. Nevertheless, their willingness to discuss the issue – rather than resort to outright expulsion – gave Wei a chance to consolidate official control over migrants and set things in order.
Sadly, Wei was soon overtaken by the revolutionary onslaught. Throughout December, the bolsheviks in Irkutsk mustered their strength among the workers and soldiers of the city, plotting a coup and arresting some of Kruglikov’s officers. Lavrov himself was apprehended on 17 December and fierce fighting broke out not long thereafter:
From 4pm on the 21st, government and revolutionary forces joined battle in Irkutsk day and night, the sound of guns and artillery was unceasing, arson and looting all around, transport was cut and post and telegraph blocked. The consulate was also searched by revolutionary troops. After the Russian consulate[?], together with other consuls, wrote to broker a ceasefire between both armies, peace was negotiated this morning. Russian merchants have incurred great losses, around 30 or 40 Chinese shops have been robbed and their losses have not yet been investigated. I wire first to report that the consulate’s staff are safe. Bo. Now there is news that the revolutionary forces continue to fight, details to follow.Telegram from Wei Bo, 7 January 1918 (sent 4 January). Ibid., p. 212.
By early January, Red reinforcements from East Siberia soon decided the conflict in favour of the bolsheviks. It put paid to Wei’s hopes for a new working relationship with the Russians. Unlike Kruglikov and Lavrov – as we shall see – the bolsheviks did not hesitate to threaten the Chinese community with eviction in the face of escalating warfare and food shortages. Wei was also not the best man to defend a fractious diaspora community, for he had no stomach for the violence of the Civil War. As in most of revolutionary Russia, the Chinese in Irkutsk would be increasingly left to their own devices.