Premier Duan Qirui and the Harbin Whites

By spring 1918, Chinese officials had tired of White antics. Semenov’s offensives into Transbaikalia threatened border security when they failed. Horvath’s political machinations in Harbin were an affront to Chinese sovereignty. They continued to recruit Chinese soldiers despite official objections, and their reliance on Japanese support was all too apparent. Already in April, Jilin Military Governor Meng Enyuan declared that “an increase in the Whites’ strength is not necessarily to our advantage”. Manchurian warlords and the Foreign Ministry lodged multiple protests with White leaders in an attempt to rein in their activities.

The Whites tried to circumvent these complaints by appealing to a higher authority: Prime Minister Duan Qirui, who headed the Beijing government for much of the initial period of the Russian Civil War. This was especially crucial with the new Chinese Eastern Railway board – in effect an anti-bolshevik government-in-exile – that Kudashev, Horvath and Kolchak were assembling in Harbin. According to the treaties that established the Railway zone, the Chinese had a say in railway management. Kudashev and Horvath were therefore anxious to obtain Duan’s approval for this venture, as we have seen in a previous document. Duan’s response was unequivocal.

Duan Qirui, successor to Yuan Shikai, ushered in Republican China’s warlord period. Source.







Ambassador Kudashev etc came to speak with me [about this]; I find it inopportune and fear that it will raise many doubts. I said so several times and told them to discuss it again with the Foreign Ministry. Could your Ministry negotiate with them? Sending my dear friend Zixing [Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang’s courtesy name] my deepest well-wishes. Yours, Rui.

Notice from CER General Manager General Horvath to the Russians in the Railway Zone
The CER Zone is part of Chinese territory. All foreigners living within it are under the legal jurisdiction of our country [Russia], respecting Chinese sovereignty and abiding strictly by the treaties signed between our country and China.

The citizens’ representative [soviet] government lately established in Russia has not yet been recognised by the Chinese government. Nor did the Chinese government enable it to extend its authority throughout the Railway zone. Due to the changing circumstances, there is an urgent need for extraordinary measures to prevent the emergence of an intolerable state of anarchy.

As the internationally-recognised representative of the Russian Provisional Government, the General Manager retains his position. At present he has no choice but to urgently take up political responsibilities towards the Russians living in the Railway zone until an official government is established in Russia. This represents no violation of the treaties formerly signed between Russia and China.

The citizens’ representative government in Russia abolished Russia’s old laws and issued new decrees. These decrees cannot be implemented in other countries, where Russians and foreigners live among each other. The General Manager instructs all permanent or temporary Russian state agencies and civic societies, as well as the Russians living in the Railway zone, to abide strictly by the laws implemented during the Provisional Government. Decrees and announcements issued by the General Manager in the exercise of political authority, based on the special circumstances in the Railway zone, must also be adhered to without exception. To be disseminated to all.

Secretary Zhu Hexiang’s verbal reply to Kudashev
The old Russian government and Kerensky were toppled one after the other; the new government is not recognised by any other country. That the Russian Ambassador in Beijing is now still able to carry out his duties is purely due to Chinese and Allied considerations for our previous friendly relations. As for Horvath’s status, such a situation is truly unique to China. That he may now still be stationed in China, maintaining his position, is merely the result of Chinese troops driving out the Bolsheviks on his behalf during the [December 1917] disorder in Harbin. The maintenance of order on the CER should naturally be upheld by China. Horvath can in no way act outside of treaty provisions or, what is more, exercise political authority in Chinese territory. This announcement cannot be acknowledged by China. And as for Horvath’s plan to recruit in Chinese territory, this seriously undermines the maintenance of order in China and cannot be permitted as well.

Letter from Duan Qirui to the Foreign Minister, 1 May 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 179-181.
The Duan cabinet of March 1918. Lu and Duan are third and fourth from right respectively. Source.

Duan was clearly displeased with Horvath’s announcement. It represented China’s worst fears: Barely a few months after the Chinese had taken over policing responsibilities on the Railway, another group of Russians was encroaching on their sovereignty in the Railway zone.

But such a firm stance was unusual for Duan. Up until this point, Kudashev’s strategy of appealing to him over the heads of local officials and the Foreign Ministry had worked. At a meeting in April, Kudashev had obtained Duan’s blessing for Semenov’s rearmament and to continue recruiting Chinese as long as they were dressed in Russian uniforms. Duan had also promised the Japanese military attache in Beijing to reprimand border officials for disarming White troops fleeing Blagoveshchensk. The issue of sovereignty in the Railway zone tested his limits, but Duan was willing to tolerate far more from the Whites than his officials were.

The reasons for this are not difficult to uncover. Duan had inherited a country divided over the authoritarian legacy of Yuan Shikai and was determined to reunify China by force. Yet his hawkish politics only deepened existing schisms. It was his attempt to push through the declaration of war against Germany that definitively split the country between Northern and Southern governments in August 1917. To boost his military strength, Duan’s government negotiated the 145m-yen Nishihara Loans with Japan in 1917-1918; it was also during the spring of 1918 that the Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement was being negotiated. As such, Duan could hardly be expected to act decisively against Japan’s other prospective clients – the White leaders of the Sino-Russian frontier.

A Republic divided: Yuan Shikai on the left and Sun Yat-sen on the right, both with the title of President. Source.

Hence, China’s irresolution against the Whites stemmed from more than a need to maintain a united, anti-Bolshevik front with the Allies. They were fighting their own civil war, which drained financial and military resources and undermined political decision-making at the very top. While the Foreign Ministry and Meng Enyuan – in whose province the Railway zone was located – continued to protest Horvath’s declaration throughout the summer, they were unable to take direct action against him and his Harbin “government”.

Two different approaches were adopted instead. In Beijing, the Foreign Ministry kept Allied diplomats informed of Japan’s influence over the Whites, hoping that they would rein in the Japanese. In Manchuria, local officials acted independently in negotiating with Red and White forces over first disarmament and recruitment, and then a broad range of commercial and political questions. The former led to disappointment not only in the Siberian Intervention, which granted Japan a pre-eminent position among the Allied forces, but also in the Paris Peace Conference and the supposed “betrayal” which ceded Shandong to Japan. The latter empowered Zhang Zuolin’s Fengtian clique over the centre, a dynamic which was to plunge China into yet more civil wars. If anything, the Harbin episode was one of many that illustrated the pre-eminent “lesson” of the Republican period: International goodwill was not to be trusted, and only a strong, unified centre could maintain China’s sovereign interests against foreign encroachment.

4 thoughts on “Premier Duan Qirui and the Harbin Whites

  1. Pingback: Kolchak in Beijing – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  2. Pingback: The Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  3. Pingback: Semenov vs. Kolchak – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

  4. Pingback: China’s Contributions to the Siberian Intervention – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s