By early 1918, the bolsheviks had seized power in important cities across Siberia and the Russian Far East. Khabarovsk fell in December, Irkutsk in January, and Blagoveshchensk and Chita in February. Only Vladivostok still held out, since the presence of Allied warships kept the bolsheviks in check.
Conversely, anti-bolshevik forces found a convenient base along the lengthy and porous Sino-Russian border. There they could recruit, receive supplies from sympathetic Allied agents and escape bolshevik pursuit.
All this threatened to implicate China in Russia’s looming Civil War. We have seen how the Manchurian province of Jilin gathered intelligence on Russian forces in neighbouring Primor’e. For the moment, however, the real danger came from elsewhere: In Chinese territory itself, with bolsheviks active in Harbin, and on the Amur and Transbaikal frontiers, next to Heilongjiang. An uprising in Harbin in December 1917 was crushed by Chinese troops, but bolshevik leader M.N. Riutin escaped and was believed to be plotting a comeback with reinforcements. If so, they would clash with Cossack forces under G.M. Semenov that had set up camp in Manzhouli:
According to the latest telegram from Commander-in-Chief Tao Xianggui of the Harbin military headquarters, a recent intelligence report states that more than 2,000 Russian bolsheviks have come from Irkutsk to Oloviannaia, 500 li from Manzhouli, proposing to cause disturbances in Harbin. They were intercepted by the cossack cavalry there, but their desires have not been extinguished and they are still planning to come. Moreover, according to intelligence and Russian newspaper reports, Riutin, who was previously driven out of the border, will attempt to restore his power in Harbin. Apart from informing Heilongjiang military governor Bao to instruct his men to be on guard, and wiring the headquarters to pay close attention and take precautions, we are reporting this for Your reference.Telegram from Jilin Military Governor Meng Enyuan and Governor Guo Zongxi, 6 February 1918 (sent 5 February). Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 239.
These and other reports were taken seriously by Chinese authorities at the highest levels. In late January, President Feng Guozhang instructed Heilongjiang Military Governor Bao Guiqing to draw up short- and medium-term defence plans. The result was decidedly pro-Semenov and anti-bolshevik.
6 February 1918
Telegram from Bao Guiqing, Qiqihar
4 February (sent 3 February)
To the President and State Council,
To the Army Ministry and General Staff,
Secret. The President’s message of the 23rd received, in obedience to which I present the following draft measures for threat resolution, as well as preparations required.
1. To instruct troops on the Chinese Eastern Railway and along the border to be on strict guard and carry out stringent checks. All Russian troops entering the border to be disarmed, and German and Austrian citizens to be strictly prohibited from entering covertly, to prevent any incidents.
2. This office to send additional agents to conduct intelligence in Vladivostok, Chita in Amur oblast’ [sic], Irkutsk and other key locations, to report continually and to lobby Russian soldiers and civilians, earnestly laying out their interests and strongly condemning the bolsheviks, setting them against each other to reduce bolshevik influence.
3. The Russian officer in Manzhouli, Semenov, has the advantage in East Siberia. It is said that he is unifying the military forces in eastern Siberia and his principles are diametrically opposed to the bolsheviks’. I have already instructed the agent stationed there to negotiate with him secretly, to use his forces to drive out the bolsheviks and guard the various key stations between Dauria and Lake Baikal, as a buffer for our territory.
4. Since the bolsheviks were repatriated, they harbour deep hatred towards [CER] General Manager Horvath. Hence, a revival of the bolsheviks is something that particularly worries Horvath. General Manager Horvath should be urgently contacted to join forces in resisting them, while also instructing the various officers to cooperate with Russian forces, so that they may work together in forestalling them.
5. The CER runs through more than 1,000 miles of the Heilongjiang frontier, in which only tens of battalions are stationed. Command and communications are extremely difficult. Manzhouli is far-flung and especially important both defensively and diplomatically. A unified command organisation should be urgently established there, with agents familiar with military matters sent specifically for this task.
6. On the pretext of guarding and conveying bolshevik soldiers, Russian troops proposed that mixed Sino-Russian units be established. However, we recognised their duplicity early on and were not provoked by them. They then proposed to use Mongols, recruiting them with salary and provisions and using their strength to reclaim their authority on the railway. Such devious plots cannot go unchecked. It would be better to deal openly and honestly, appeasing the Mongols to induce them to favour their homeland and not be swayed [by the Russians]. I have now sent a delegate to communicate with Sheng Fu and other important Mongols as a pre-emptive measure. These are the measures for resolving the threat.
Manzhouli and Hailar are cut off by the Khingan mountain range. Communications are difficult, and it is necessary to make Semenov drive out the bolsheviks and work in concert with us. Only then can that area became a base. Failing which, strong forces must be sent there for it to be controlled. The defence of Manzhouli and Hailar is in dire need of management. This is one area of preparation.
If Semenov will not be used by us or if he fails in his endeavours, then Bukhedu must be defended. Strong forces should be stationed there to hold the important passes in the Greater Khingan range and bar the Russians from storming the gates. This is the second area of preparation.
Heihe is an important town in Manchuria and, if an incident occurs, will become a military flashpoint. Although it is surrounded by a large river, when the ice melts in spring there are sufficient grounds for concern. However, there is only one brigade stationed there. Given that national defence is under threat, it is necessary to muster more forces there. This is the third area of preparation.
The road to Manzhouli is long and troop transport is both difficult and expensive. Good weaponry should be employed to make up for the lack of manpower, readying artillery, machine guns etc, in order to counteract the enemy’s greater numbers. Only then can we count on success. This is the fourth area of preparation.
If hostilities commence with Russia and relations are ruptured, Heilongjiang will certainly not be able to stand alone. On a small scale, all three Manchurian provinces must join forces; on a larger scale, it must take up the entire country’s strength. This is the fifth area of preparation.
If the various measures drafted above are appropriate, I beg Your guidance and instruction. Apart from conveying new situation reports as they are received, I present this for Your reference.Letter from the State Council, 7 February 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 70-71.
At this early stage, Semenov may have seemed an attractive ally. His Special Manchurian Detachment (Osobyi man’chzhurskii otriad) had advanced from Manzhouli to Adrianovka in mid-January and seemed poised to take Chita. Nevertheless, Bao sounded a note of caution: The towns and stations from which Semenov would draw support were liminal territories for the Chinese as well. Manzhouli, Hailar and Bukhedu were part of Hulunbuir (Barga), contested among Russians, Chinese, and Bargut and other Mongol groups. The region had declared independence from China as recently as 1912, supported by Russian officials, and it was Russian influence that returned it to Chinese sovereignty in 1915. If given a free hand, Semenov’s recruitment of Mongol troops could well encourage separatism, erode Chinese control over Hulunbuir and raise the spectre of continued Russian interference in areas claimed by China.
Such fears were not unfounded, as the exploits of Semenov’s lieutenant R.F. Ungern-Sternberg would prove. As long as the Reds seemed the greater threat, however, Chinese officials were willing to deal leniently with the Whites. This would change once Semenov’s fortunes turned barely a month later, sending his troops fleeing into China.