Vladivostok occupied a singular status throughout the Russian Civil War. As a significant commercial and military port and the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was a critical gateway through which the Allies had channelled supplies destined for the tsarist war effort. These stockpiles had to be protected after the November Revolution. Moreover, as the prospect of foreign intervention against the bolsheviks grew more likely, men as well as materiel could be put ashore there. It also became the natural site for a future military headquarters. On top of this, Vladivostok’s very diversity – with large Chinese, Korean and Japanese populations – added yet another layer of complexity to the city’s competing interests.
Unlike in other areas of the Russian Far East, therefore, Allied military forces maintained a consistent presence in Vladivostok. They compelled the city’s Bolsheviks to tread carefully despite the declaration of soviet power in the Far East in December 1917. As we have seen, Japanese, British and American warships arrived in short order following the November Revolution, and already in December Vladivostok’s Chinese community petitioned for China do the same. The Foreign Ministry backed their demands, but the ongoing North-South War in China monopolised all naval resources even as the incoming consul, Shao Hengjun, sent appeal after appeal for a warship.
This stalemate was finally resolved in March-April 1918. By mid-March, the Beijing government’s victories in Hunan had given it a freer hand and a warship – the cruiser Hai Rong, also anglicised as Hai Yung – was finally approved. The instability in Vladivostok also showed no signs of abating. Radical members of the soviet under K.A. Sukhanov, chafing at Allied interference, attempted to gain control of the city’s finances, arrested merchants, increased their agitational work and strengthened workers’ committees. Chinese labourers in particular came under attack. In addition to the warship, therefore, Shao now proposed that members of the Chinese community be evacuated from Vladivostok:
Yesterday, Russian officials announced that they will no longer be responsible for maintaining the peace. An uprising is imminent and the people are fearful. Other countries have sent additional ships to evacuate women and children. Our migrants are no less than five times more numerous, yet they have nothing to rely on. The [Bolshevik] party in Vladivostok has a military strength of around 2,000-3,000, reinforcements from Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk number nearly 5,000. If our troops do not come, we will be left here waiting to die, but if they arrive hastily I fear it may provoke a tragedy like that of Heihe during the Boxer Rebellion. May I request that additional trains be quickly ordered on the Harbin line, as well as more merchant ships dispatched, in order to evacuate the migrants. More warships should also be sent. The matter is urgent, hence this bold request. As for our current loss of prestige and our missed opportunities in future, I have not had time to study the question. For your kind consideration.Telegram from Shao Hengjun, 31 March 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: chubing Xiboliya, Minguo liunian zhi banian, p. 57
A merchant ship, the Fei Jing, was thus dispatched to Vladivostok to repatriate those who wished to leave. Yet the Chinese community’s initial relief was short-lived. The Hai Rong took almost a month to arrive in Vladivostok from its original berth in Fujian. While the Chinese held their breath, three Japanese residents were killed by armed Russians on 4 April. On the pretext of protecting their compatriots, five hundred Japanese sailors disembarked from their warships to patrol the city. Fifty British soldiers from the Suffolk followed suit. These landings, combined with the delay of the Hai Rong, prompted accusations that China had fallen behind its Allied counterparts and was too weak to defend its own people.
British sailors have also landed, their uniforms are gleaming and they are now performing drills. Both British and Japanese consulates are guarded by numerous soldiers. The British consul asked if we will have a warship and why nothing has been said about it. The American warship is awaiting orders and will naturally follow suit. The streets are full of party members making speeches about resisting the foreign insult, rumours are rife that the Reds will carry out mass looting and exterminate the rich. Recently the deputy commissar also came to the consulate to lodge a protest; judging by its contents, there will not be a good outcome. The chambers of commerce from various places have come in droves to seek instructions, I have talked myself hoarse with them. If the warship still does not come I will have reached the end of my capabilities. In China the left hand does not know what the right is doing; in no endeavour do we not lose the advantage. One could weep over this. Please wire to inform me if it will come. For your kind consideration.Telegram from Shao Hengjun, 5 April 1918. Ibid., p. 67.
Shao’s words revealed the pressures he was under. As if the Hai Rong’s slow progress was not enough, a rumour soon spread that an attempt would be made on Shao’s life. Controversy then erupted over the costs of evacuation: Although Shao insisted that returnees be given free passage home, the rent and insurance on the Fei Jing proved too onerous for Beijing and fees were charged. According to the Vladivostok chamber of commerce, this was yet another indignity heaped upon the diaspora community.
The disorder in Vladivostok is growing daily, other countries’ sailors have landed, each protecting their people. Our warship has not arrived after so long, all the more allowing others to view us with contempt. Now our migrants are facing disaster and in future they will have even less of a leg to stand on here, so why is the warship not coming? Consul Shao has prepared trains and ships, wishing for the migrants to return home. May we ask: If the government has given up on its people, where can the people go? Moreover, we are to arrange for the transport fees ourselves. In that case we could all go on our own accord; who would wish to take on these empty promises and be restricted to purchasing fourth-class [?]. If the warship comes, the migrants will not leave and they will be able to protect themselves. But if it indeed will not come, the shame on the country and harm to the migrants will have reached new heights. The migrant community is deeply angered and wishes to know the truth. Are Consul Shao and the Foreign Ministry up to no good, making a fool of us migrants? We humbly request Your Ministry to question the government and inform us citizens properly. Moreover, Consul Shao is now the target of a malicious plot. If something does indeed happen, with whom should the community consult? For your kind consideration, the Vladivostok chamber of commerce.Letter from the Agriculture and Trade Ministry, 16 April 1918. Ibid., pp. 88-89.
In the midst of this furore, the Hai Rong finally arrived on 17 April. Shao and the chamber of commerce also reached an agreement on fees, by which poorer migrants would be repatriated free of charge. The Fei Jing subsequently left Vladivostok with 1,096 passengers on 18 April, and the situation was defused for the moment.
The war of words over the Hai Rong and Fei Jing illustrated two critical issues. First, military intervention in Russia was a matter of China’s national prestige. Vladivostok, with its Allied contingents standing cheek by jowl, was a focal point for national contestation. Second, the need to defend diaspora communities became an arena in which such contestation was carried out. Not only was this a convenient pretext for intervention, the ability to defend one’s citizens was itself framed as a sign of strength. If the Japanese could make good on this, how could China fall behind? This was a lesson well-learnt from China’s experience with the Boxer Rebellion – now applied to the hundreds of thousands of Chinese in Russian territory.