In an earlier post, we saw how Heilongjiang warlord Bao Guiqing proposed to beef up border security and send agents to Russia. Both plans were swiftly approved by the highest levels of the Beijing government. A new Chinese Eastern Railway garrison was established in mid-February at the border station of Manzhouli, under the command of Zhang Huanxiang. Intelligence reports also began trickling in on the clashes between Whites and Reds near the Sino-Russian border. One provided an account of the December fighting in Irkutsk, including casualties (eight of whom were Chinese), the Whites’ preparations against poison gas, and the depressed state of the city. Another related Semenov’s advance from his base in Manzhouli in late January. In a matter of weeks, his men had taken Dauria, Borzia and arrived within 120km of Chita.
Semenov’s successes were fleeting. In mid-February the bolsheviks seized control of the Chita soviet, joining up with Red forces from Irkutsk under S.G. Lazo for a showdown in the Transbaikal. By the end of the month they had taken the offensive, pushing Semenov back closer and closer to the Chinese border. An armed clash between Red and Chinese troops seemed imminent, to say nothing of the Whites retreating into Chinese territory.
Chita in Russia was occupied by the bolsheviks on the 18th. On the night of the 19th they advanced to Oloviannaia and on the 24th were closing in on Dauria; the Russian border officials there have withdrawn to Manzhouli. The railway west of Dauria was destroyed by the cossacks, and repeated requests for instructions have been received from the officers in Manzhouli.
Dauria is only 100 or so li from Manzhouli. Our garrison in Manzhouli was established purely to protect the railway under the [CER] treaty, with absolutely no bias towards Red or White. Manzhouli is our border, neither Red nor White is allowed to violate it. However, the Russian bolsheviks were expelled from Harbin and fervently seek revenge; furthermore, there are German and Austrian POWs in their midst. Heilongjiang’s defences are too meagre and overstretched. Manzhouli is far away and, if the Reds come in numbers to invade, it will be difficult to hold out. If they disobey violently and force our hand, how this should be handled is the first matter for consultation.
Even if the bolsheviks do not treat us as enemies for the moment, the cossacks are now in Manzhouli. They may do battle with cossack troops within our borders. How this should be handled is the second matter for consultation.
The cossacks are few in number and weak. They certainly cannot resist the bolsheviks. Were the cossacks to be defeated and retreat south along the railway, they will immediately enter our territory. Then, if the bolsheviks were to advance arbitrarily, how this should be handled is the third matter for consultation.
I have instructed the garrison command to go to Manzhouli to deal with matters as they arise. Defence is critical and I await Your advice.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 27 February 1918 (sent 26 February). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 84-85.
The Army Ministry replied instructing Bao to disarm Semenov’s troops if they crossed the border, and to prevent the Reds from pursuing them. At the same time, Bao requested reinforcements from Jilin Military Governor Meng Enyuan. Although both men were in rival warlord groups, the Manzhouli emergency demanded a joint response:
According to a telegram from Military Governor Bao asking for assistance, the Russian bolsheviks have colluded with German and Austrian POWs to cause trouble and invade Manzhouli in Heilongjiang; the situation is critical. The Three Provinces [of Manchuria] depend on one another, they sink or swim together and I cannot stand aloof. I sent orders to the Harbin garrison command, which replied: ‘It has been decided to dispatch deputy commander Yao Peizhen with three battalions, as well as four machine guns and four mountain guns. They will leave for Manzhouli on the 6th.’Telegram from Jilin Military Governor Meng Enyuan, 5 March 1918 (sent 4 March). Ibid., pp. 89.
The Red advance proved relentless, arriving at Manzhouli in early March and sending Semenov’s forces fleeing into China. Bao’s men stopped the Reds at 86th Station, a railway siding around 10km from Manzhouli, and proceeded to negotiate with them.
The bolsheviks have occupied Matsievskaia, 36 li from Manzhouli and 18 li from our front. The Manzhouli garrison command sent a representative to meet with them and prevent them from entering the border. They demanded that Semenov’s troops be expelled or disarmed, giving us one week to reply with a deadline of the 12th.
Since the soldiers in Manzhouli are completely dependent on Semenov’s help for post, telegraph and transport, it is not expedient at this time to treat Semenov harshly and we must secretly continue to communicate with him. I have wired garrison commander Zhang Huanxiang to keep negotiating with the bolsheviks, telling them that the expulsion of Semenov is not in keeping with international law on the safeguarding of political prisoners, but China can undertake not to allow Semenov to re-enter Russian territory to cause trouble for the bolsheviks. If they concede, the crisis on the border may yet ease. But the front is too close and the situation is volatile. Manzhouli has few troops and is a target for enemy ambitions. I implore the Government to bring forward a plan for national defence and send troops to assist, as well as appoint a commander-in-chief for Heilongjiang to set things in order. As for the bolsheviks’ demands, I seek your counsel.Telegram from Bao Guiqing, 10 March 1918. Ibid., p. 96.
These talks were some of the first to take place between Manchurian “men on the spot” and the bolsheviks, and will be covered in a later post. Nevertheless, a few important points should be made. First was the ambiguous attitude toward Semenov: Not only was the small Chinese border garrison dependent on his goodwill, the Beijing government was itself bound by the Allies to look kindly on the White movement. The order to disarm Semenov’s forces was a dead letter, since Allied forces – in particular, the Japanese – were soon supplying them with arms and personnel in Chinese territory.
More notable was Bao’s justification for protecting Semenov and his appeal to international law in the treatment of political prisoners. This would become a precedent for China’s approach to the full-scale Russian refugee crisis that emerged with the collapse of the White movement just one year later.
Similarly, the degree of coordination between rival warlords in dealing with the Russian Civil War remains an under-studied subject. Bao was a supporter of Zhang Zuolin, leader of the Fengtian clique. Meng was more independent, and Zhang would soon unseat him in favour of Bao in his bid to consolidate control over Manchuria. Whatever their personal ambitions and allegiances, did these men cooperate when faced with a threat from Russia? A closer look at this issue could shed new light on the phenomenon of Chinese warlordism and its relationship to the wider nation.