A Chinese Warship for Vladivostok, Part II

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.

vladmarch1920
Parade commemorating the March Revolution in Vladivostok, 1920. Source.

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:

昨日俄官宣告不負治安責任,變在眉睫,人民恟懼。他國多加船將婦孺運出,吾僑奚啻倍蓰,一無所恃。崴黨兵力約二三千,雙城援軍近五千,我軍不來,抱定坐斃,如急進又恐激成庚子黑河之劫。可否請與哈路速訂加車,並多派商輪,趕將僑民運出,軍艦亦須加派,事急冒請。至目前貼人齒冷,與將來失機,尚無暇計。伏乞核示。

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
hairong
The Hai Rong, built by AG Vulcan Stettin in 1896 for the Qing government and scuttled in the second Sino-Japanese War. Source.

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.

英國水師亦登岸,軍裝鮮明,正在演操。英、日領館多兵圍護。英領事問我艦有否,何寂無聲。美兵艦正在候令,自必一致。滿街黨人演說御外侮,哄傳紅隊將大搶,殲盡富人。頃俄省副長並來本館,作抗議式,探其內容,無善果。各處商會紛來請命,恆浚舌敝且結,軍艦再不來,恆浚告力竭。中國指臂不相屬,無事不失機,可為流涕。懇電復陳道否,伏乞查核。

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.
shaohengjun
Shao Hengjun in spring 1918. Source.

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.

崴亂日亟,各國水師登岸,各衛其民。我國軍艦許久不至,益為人所鄙夷。我僑目前遭殃,將來更無立足地,何以不許來。邵領備火車輪船,欲僑民回國,試問政府已絕其民,民將焉往。且自備川資,皆能自行,誰願叨口惠,受限制,專購四等豬本[?]。軍艦如來,僑民不去,亦能自保。如真不來,辱國害僑,可謂已極。僑眾憤急,願得真相,究竟是否邵領與外交部惡作劇,愚我僑民。伏乞鈞部質諸政府,正告我民。又邵領現被人暗算,果有事,僑眾將向誰言,伏懇核示。崴商會叩。

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.
На Фонтанной напротив дома Дыдышко
Porter on Fontannaia Street, 1919. From the Merrill Haskell collection. Source.

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.

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