In previous posts, we saw how the first wave of the Civil War in East Siberia and the Russian Far East ended in temporary defeat for the Whites. As the Allies continued to wrangle over the issue of military intervention to oust the Bolsheviks and secure Russia’s participation in World War One, they put pressure on the Beijing government to allow escaping Whites to regroup in Chinese territory. An embryonic anti-Bolshevik government was also being formed in Harbin; its military commanders, such as Ataman Semenov, soon received Allied weapons and Japanese advisors.
The Whites did not confine themselves to supplementing their arsenals. While in Chinese territory, they took the opportunity to recruit Chinese soldiers as well, much to the consternation of local officials.
A telegram from Harbin garrison commander Tao Xianggui, dated the 10th, reads:
‘According to a message from [Binjiang] circuit intendant Shi Shaochang, commander of the Amur border troops [M.K.] Samoilov wrote to say that he proposes to recruit 500 Chinese for the purpose of protecting the Chinese Eastern Railway. Advice was sought but no instructions received. Today, another message from circuit intendant Shi states that Russian commander [M.M.] Pleshkov has informed him of plans to recruit 4,500 Chinese, draft them into new units and employ them in the rear; discharged Chinese officer Zhang Manfeng will be tasked with this matter and a swift response was requested. And in a meeting, circuit intendant Shi informed me that Horvath had previously mentioned this matter to him, hoping that permission to draft these new units would be quickly granted, that they may be used in the rear.
‘My view is that if Samoilov etc were to recruit so many, this would include both good and bad elements, whom I fear may not necessarily follow their orders. It would be nothing more than increasing banditry in the area. I cannot but voice my opinion on this matter in advance. As for whether this should be allowed, I request your advice so that I may give them an answer.’
If the proposals by Samoilov etc to recruit Chinese for military service as rearguard reinforcements were to be permitted – including placing discharged Chinese officer Zhang Manfeng in charge of recruitment – this would be tantamount to giving them military aid. Were the Bolsheviks to learn of this, it would certainly give them grounds to say, once again, that we are siding with the cossacks, provoking their enmity. Moreover, an increase in the Whites’ strength is not necessarily to our advantage. As for whether we should prohibit this, I seek your advice and instruction.Telegram from Meng Enyuan, 12 April 1918 (sent 11 April). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 150-151.
Much has been written about Chinese soldiers in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. As with many aspects of the diaspora during this period, exact numbers are hard to come by: A broad range of 30,000-70,000 Chinese internationalists is often cited by western historians. Given the desperate state of many Chinese wartime workers during this period, it is hardly surprising that they responded to the Bolsheviks’ recruitment efforts in large numbers. This, in turn, became fodder for White propaganda, which played on racialised imagery of Bolshevik traitors destroying Russia with the help of foreign interlopers.
Yet Meng’s telegram clearly showed that, at least in the Russian Far East, the Whites were not averse to using Chinese manpower themselves. In his memoirs, Horvath justified Samoilov’s proposal by arguing that Tao’s garrison did not have sufficient men and weapons to effectively guard the CER. No such explanation is forthcoming for Pleshkov’s, which is particularly surprising given the number involved and his position as commander-in-chief of Horvath’s nascent anti-Bolshevik army in the Railway zone. Pleshkov’s request was thus a definite move to supplement the White war effort with Chinese soldiers. And while Horvath’s men may have thought to inform the Chinese authorities of their intentions, more independent actors – such as Semenov – paid them no such courtesy.
Beijing agreed with Meng and prohibited the drafting of Chinese into the White movement. However, this proved impossible to enforce and Meng’s warning of a clash between Russians and Chinese soon came true.
According to a telegram from Harbin garrison commander Tao Xianggui and manager Gao Shibin, dated the 20th:
‘In a telegram of the 19th, Manzhouli detachment commander Yao Peizhen wrote that Russian cossack leader Semenov had previously recruited more than 800 Chinese soldiers, housed in barracks to the east and west of Manzhouli station. Yesterday, on the night of the 18th, due to a reduction in pay, conflict suddenly broke out in the western barracks between the Russian officers and Chinese troops. The Russian officers immediately arrested two of the ringleaders, wishing to send them to the large jail in the eastern barracks, but they were snatched back by the Chinese soldiers. Then the Russian officers fired into the crowd and the Chinese soldiers fled empty-handed. Our forces, hearing the sudden gunfire, immediately ordered all barracks to guard their positions and prepare for any eventuality. The 170 escapee Chinese soldiers were then corralled into the theatre, and a representative was sent together with the Heilongjiang headquarters and the diplomatic bureau to investigate matters. Nobody was hurt. Heilongjiang chief of staff Huang and our battalion commanders Wang and Lu went to meet with Semenov, who said that it would be difficult to continue using Chinese soldiers and proposed to prepare trains immediately to send them to Changchun and disperse them. Huang etc have subsequently requested that each Chinese soldier be given 8 roubles’ travel expenses, and that they should embark on the 20th, with us providing additional troops to escort them to Harbin, to be replaced on the onward journey to Changchun. Once the date of the soldiers’ arrival is conveyed, these replacements can be arranged.’
On the matter of Russians recruiting Chinese soldiers, I have repeatedly ordered that this be suppressed in accordance with the Central Government’s instructions. I have also instructed Tao etc to explain the pros and cons of recruiting Chinese troops to General Manager Horvath multiple times. But the Russian side did not heed our earnest advice and recruited in secret. Now an incident has indeed occurred. After this conflict, the Russians may yet develop some prudence and future prohibition of recruitment will then be more effective. However, on the matter of the replacement escort for the Chinese soldiers, if an appropriate means of dispersing them is not found, I fear they will wander and become bandits, bringing harm to the area. Apart from instructing brigade commander Pei and circuit intendant Tao [Shi?] to prepare the means for dispersal, I present the above for your reference.
[Note: The Manzhouli garrison comprised troops from both Heilongjiang as well as Meng’s own forces from Jilin. Hence the reference to commanders from both provinces. R.L.]Telegram from Meng Enyuan, 22 April 1918 (sent 21 April). Ibid., p. 169.
Meng’s optimism was ultimately misplaced. The Whites continued to draft Chinese soldiers; as with the number of Red internationalists, though, the scale of this recruitment is difficult to determine without further research. Certainly, after the revival of the anti-Bolshevik movement in autumn 1918, Chinese troops were found in the employ of Semenov, Kalmykov and even Kolchak.
The recruitment issue underscored the divergence between White and Chinese interests. It came on top of growing tensions over border security, sovereignty in the Railway zone, and Japanese involvement. Already at this early stage, Meng was able to declare that “an increase in the Whites’ strength is not necessarily to our advantage” – words that would only gain credence as the Civil War progressed.