Having seized power in November 1917, the Bolsheviks pursued a complex foreign policy. Overtures were immediately made to the Germans to secure a ceasefire and lay the groundwork for peace talks. Allied recognition was sought for the new government, as well as support for an “armistice on all fronts”.
At the same time, Bolshevik diplomacy was avowedly revolutionary, addressing the international public over the heads of their governments. To fuel popular anger against the war, party newspapers soon made good on the threat to publish secret treaties. More importantly, the Bolsheviks hoped that the working classes of other countries – particularly Germany – would rise in revolution. If this did not happen spontaneously, they would help it along.
The Bolsheviks’ attention largely focused on Western Europe during this time, but their appeals could still reach Asian audiences. Allied diplomats were well aware of the incendiary potential of such messages and were anxious to avoid them getting through to China. A January 1918 meeting between British Counsellor Baermu – I am unsure of his identity, perhaps H.B. Orpen-Palmer – and Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian illustrated this.
Palmer: Our embassy has now received news that the Bolshevik government in Petrograd has again sent a wireless announcement to other countries asking them to support its efforts to negotiate peace with Germany. That party’s plan is, if other governments do not accede to its request, to immediately incite each country’s citizens to rise up in revolution, in order to rebel against their governments.
Gao: China will most certainly not be incited by them.
Palmer: Would your government send secret instructions to the Interior and Communications ministries to inform the postal and telegraph agencies and the various newspapers that, if they were to encounter this news item, it would be important not to transmit or publish it? In addition, the Interior and Communications ministries should label their notices to the various agencies and organisations as secret, as a means of informing them that there is no need to mention the receipt of any reports or from which organisation the instructions were issued. Also, the newspapers should be strictly prohibited from carrying these instructions.
Gao: This can be done.Dialogue between Deputy Foreign Minister Gao Erqian and British Embassy Counsellor Palmer [unsure of name - ed.], 8 January 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: chubing Xiboliya, Minguo liunian zhi banian, p. 10.
It is not clear which announcement Palmer was referring to; perhaps it was Trotsky’s “Appeal to the Toiling, Oppressed and Exhausted Peoples of Europe” of 19 December. At any rate, Gao’s complacency – that China was immune from Red provocation – was unfounded. Just days after 7 November, Chinese newspapers reported not only on the bare facts of the Revolution but also on Lenin’s and Trotsky’s views. English translations of their work soon began circulating, compiled and printed by American communists. By November 1918, Li Dazhao – one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party – would publish his groundbreaking “The Victory of Bolshevism“, which attributed the “victory over German militarism” to “the achievements of Lenin, Trotsky and Kollontai”.
Already in late January, the Foreign Ministry was taking the threat of Red propaganda far more seriously, especially in response to a warning from Russian Ambassador N.A. Kudashev.
After Russia’s Bolsheviks usurped power in Petrograd, the party’s official newspaper published a resolution which stated that two million rubles had been disbursed to its representatives stationed abroad, as expenses for inciting revolution. Those people despatched by the Bolsheviks may enter China by stealth and, according to information received, wish to join forces with anti-government groups in China. Our Embassy is hereby attaching a Russian-language copy of the published so-called resolution for Your Ministry’s reference. Russian Embassy.
Resolution of the Russian Provisional Government [sic]
The Council of People’s Commissars of the Provisional Government considers that its authority must be based on the principle of international proletarian solidarity, and that to oppose war and imperialism it is necessary to proceed in unison with the international proletariat in order to achieve full victory. Hence it must do its utmost and, through funds, assist the international left-wing proletarian movement, regardless of whether it may be in enemy, allied or neutral countries. Now it has been specially resolved to dedicate two million rubles to the Provisional Government’s overseas representatives, to assist the international revolutionary movement at their discretion. Signed, Chairman of the Provisional Government’s Council of People’s Commissars Malianov [sic, should be Ulianov – ed.], Commissar for Foreign Affairs Trotsky, Council of People’s Commissars Secretary Gorbunov. Provisional Peasants’ Government official newspaper, 26 November 1917 [sic]. Number 31.Memo from Kudashev, 22 January 1918 (sent 19 January). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 223-224
This two-million-ruble resolution – actually published by Izvestiia on 26 December 1917 and mentioned also by John Reed – was, again, not directed at China. But the comment about Bolshevik funds assisting “anti-government groups” certainly met its mark. The Foreign Ministry was concerned enough to convey Kudashev’s message to officials in the Sino-Russian border provinces on the very same day.
The Russian Ambassador writes that, according to newspaper reports, the Russian Bolsheviks are now despatching people to China, using all means to preach their revolutionary ideas, and they have issued two million rubles for them to assist the international revolutionary movement at their discretion. He asked that we wire the border regions to be on strict guard, and said that he had also instructed the various Russian consuls to take precautions. If anti-government elements are apprehended, local officials should hand them over to the consuls for trial. Please comply and be on strict guard, work with the Russian consuls on this, and cooperate with the consuls when necessary. Foreign Ministry.Telegram to the civilian and military governors and foreign affairs officials in Fengtian, Jilin, Heilongjiang; the grand superintendant in Kulun; and the superintendant in Altai, 22 January 1918. Ibid., p. 225.
The next day, the same message was sent to special commissioners and foreign affairs officials across multiple provinces and cities where foreigners congregated: Shandong, Shanghai, Fujian, Zhili, Sichuan, Hubei, Zhejiang, Henan, Shaanxi, Yantai, Xiamen, Yichang, Ningbo, Wenzhou, Jiujiang, Suzhou, Zhenjiang, Chongqing, Jiangning, Shantou, Qiongzhou [Hainan], Guangdong, Yunnan, Guangxi and Hunan. The State Council was also duly informed of the threat.
Yet it is worth re-emphasising that China was not a priority for the Bolsheviks during this period. Whatever entanglements they had with the Chinese were directed towards the diaspora in Russia itself. A short-lived Red uprising in Harbin had been swiftly quashed by Chinese troops. Instead, it was non-Russian communist publications that first introduced Chinese radicals to Marxist ideas. Far more than any Bolshevik revolutionary pronouncement, English-, German- and Japanese-language materials stoked Chinese interest in Marxism. Only retroactively did this transform into an interest in the Soviets, and a receptiveness to the organisational efforts of Russian agents.