The spring and summer of 1918 marked a period of tense anticipation in the Russian Far East. Outbreaks of violence between Red and White had taken place in Irkutsk, Blagoveshchensk, and with Semenov’s forces in Transbaikalia. Japanese, British, American and Chinese sailors had landed in Vladivostok. But amidst these wars were rumours of wars. As the impetus for Allied military intervention gained momentum, preparations, both diplomatic and military, were feverishly under way among the Allied powers: To persuade America to intervene, to rein in the Japanese, to gain from the disorder in Russia.
Like the other Allied powers, the Beijing government was alive to the dangers and possibilities of the Russian Civil War. In a previous document, we saw how the Beijing government endorsed intervention in Siberia as early as February 1918. Nevertheless, China was deeply conscious that it did not have the capacity to act alone. It would have to accommodate Japanese interests and, at the same time, hope for Allied support to keep Japan in check. This balancing act – already delicate in the extreme – was further compromised by Premier Duan Qirui’s dependence on Japanese aid to win his own civil war.
The result in May 1918 was the secret Sino-Japanese Joint Military Defence Agreement (Zhong-Ri gongtong fangdi junshi xieding), signed by military representatives in Beijing. Its twelve articles allowed for joint command of both country’s troops; freedom of movement for Japanese soldiers in undefined “areas of military activity” within Chinese territory; access to railways, post, telegraph and intelligence; and shared military codes. Under further agreements, Japanese instructors would train Chinese troops and supply weapons. Such provisions recalled the controversial “Group Five” section of the Twenty-One Demands, which obliged China to accept Japanese military advisors and arms. The Group Five demands had caused bitter controversy when they were first made in 1915 and were subsequently dropped in the face of Chinese and international opposition. Now it seemed that the Duan government was surrendering Chinese security without a Japanese ultimatum.
News of the secret negotiations were leaked in mid-April and provoked a firestorm of protests, many of them from merchants.
According to numerous telegrams from the Guangdong, Shanghai, Hankou and other provincial commercial associations: ‘We have heard that the government will soon sign a new secret treaty with Japan even harsher than the Group Five articles that were reserved in 1915. The merchants swear never to acknowledge it and ask the government and the State Council to reject it vigorously.’ Representatives Bian Mengchang, Wang Wendian, Duan Eryi and Zhang Guojun have been elected to personally request clarification. If demands have been made that impede sovereignty – whether temporary or not – we ask that the government accede to the people’s wishes and firmly reject them, to save our very existence. Urgently awaiting your instructions. Jointly submitted by the National Association of Chambers of Commerce and 84 representatives from 23 provincial chambers of commerce.Telegram from the National Association of Chambers of Commerce, 1 May 1918. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao: chubing Xiboliya, Minguo liunian zhi banian, p. 120.
The progressive Jiangsu Educational Association, which attracted many Chinese students returning from studies abroad, voiced its concerns.
Newspapers are rife with reports on the provisions of a Sino-Japanese treaty, with loss of sovereignty as the foremost issue. The people’s mood is one of panic and shock, they run to tell the news to each other, brewing ill-will and hatred and insidiously undermining any prospective goodwill. Educators have the responsibility of guiding citizens. We jointly state that secrecy will conversely give grounds for gossip, whereas a public declaration will prevent misunderstanding. In submitting this suggestion, we ask also for vigilant negotiations to preserve sovereignty.Telegram from the Jiangsu Educational Association, 1 May 1918. Ibid., p. 120.
Notes were also received from the Chinese diaspora and its diplomatic officials.
Since the newspapers publicised Japan’s various demands, the diaspora has been in a panic and asked that the truth be made known. Diplomatic secrets naturally cannot be disclosed to the public. Hence, could a confidential telegram be sent with the contents [of the treaty], how it should be publicised, and if the newspapers should be corrected. Please send a confidential wire with instructions. A telegram from the various chambers of commerce addressed to the Ministry is below.
Telegram from the Chambers of Commerce in Australia
The newspapers report that the government will allow Japan to manage armouries and docks, open mines, train troops and gain special privileges in Manchuria. This matter concerns the survival of the country, we ask that the situation be saved. Please send a reply. Leader of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce Ye Bingnan, leader of the Melbourne Republic of China Association Chen Mingdian.Telegram from Australian Consul-General Wei Zijing, 8 May 1918. Ibid., p. 124.
The signing of the treaty despite these protests only fuelled the bitterness.
The Beijing newspapers report: China has signed a secret treaty with Japan which has brought harm to all of Chinese territory. The merchants will never recognise such a treaty, we ask that the government publicise it to reassure the people. Earnestly awaiting a reply. Chinese chamber of commerce.Telegram from the Yangon Chamber of Commerce, 10 June 1918. Ibid., pp. 185-186.
On the Sino-Japanese provisions, the merchants have made such appeals, yet the military deputies flagrantly ignored them and signed it secretly. Why show such generosity towards our eastern neighbour that one must then forfeit the country? If the merchants have but one breath left, they swear never to recognise it. We ask the President to take pity on this ancient country with five thousand years of civilisation and refuse to affix his seal, at the same time publicising the articles and seeking the citizens’ approval for them. The country’s one lifeline is in the President’s hands. We citizens do not wish to become slaves, only the President must have pity on us. Jointly submitted by the representatives of 24 provinces and districts in the National Association of Chambers of Commerce.Telegram from the National Association of Chambers of Commerce, 19 May 1918 (sent 18 May), pp. 147-148.
While the Association appealed to President Feng Guozhang, other groups took more radical steps. In Beijing, two thousand student demonstrators gathered outside the Presidential office to protest the Agreement. Hundreds of Chinese students in Japan quit their studies and returned to set up national salvation organisations. Among those caught up in the furore were such future luminaries as Zhou Enlai, then a student in Tokyo, and Peng Pai, then at Waseda.
Just one year later – following yet another ill-starred treaty – Chinese civil society would erupt again in the May 4th Movement. But like the Twenty-One Demands before it, the 1918 Joint Defence Agreement galvanised opposition to the Beijing government and its perceived betrayals. China’s diplomatic balancing act over the Siberian Intervention only stoked popular anger which, in time, would grow more radical – and inspire future leaders of the Chinese communist movement.