In January 1918, following the Bolshevik seizure of power, the Beijing government placed an embargo on Manchurian exports to Siberia. Consular certification was necessary to send goods, including basic foodstuffs, to Vladivostok and Irkutsk. This revealed some cracks in Allied policy: Britain and France had insisted on the embargo, Russian ambassador Kudashev disapproved, and the American government feared that it would alienate ordinary Russians.
Given the extensive trade links between China and Russia, it was natural that Chinese merchants would also suffer as a result. While America petitioned the other Allied powers to lift the embargo throughout the spring, Chinese firms wrote their own protests. A joint letter from Dong He Hong and 23 other Harbin grain firms provides an insight into the volume of trade, prices, and the types of argument used in support of the merchants’ position.
The port city of Harbin has been established for 20 years; the development of its markets can almost be mentioned in the same breath as Tianjin and Shanghai, with the grain trade at its core. The business of grain merchants involves trading in wheat and soybeans, with reliance chiefly on exports. Soybeans are sold in both eastern and western countries, and in an average year exports can each 30 million pud (each pud equivalent to 30 Chinese jin). The wheat is sold in Russian territory, with average annual exports reaching 10 million pud. The more exports there are, the higher the profit and the more rapidly the market develops; such is the situation in general. Since the European War occurred, the tonnage of soybean exports has fallen and we have clearly been affected. However, it was still possible to deal in wheat, to be sold in Russian territory. Hence, although the grain merchants were troubled, this did not reach the level of great distress.
Recently, because the Russian workers’ and soldiers’ faction was provoking unrest, the diplomatic corps asked the government to restrict exports of wheat as well and its price has then fallen precipitously. Last winter, we bought and stockpiled grain, with wheat at 12 rubles and soybean at 8 rubles per pud. This spring the price of wheat is only a little more than 3 rubles, and soybeans a little more than 2 rubles per pud. In fact these are only abstract quotes, without any real sales, and future depreciation will be limitless. Speaking of our current situation alone, we are all experiencing intolerable losses. If grain prices were to fall again, it would lead to wholesale collapse and, with the issue of debt involved, one fears that other merchants would also not be able to maintain themselves. The imminent peril we face will determine whether the Harbin market thrives or declines. We earnestly ask that you look favourably on our report and lift the embargo on wheat exports in particular. Not only will we have a new lease on life, the market too will obtain immeasurable relief.
The petition thus begins with no small measure of alarmism and reiterates the importance of the merchants’ success to that of the city as a whole. It then goes further to emphasise the benefits of trade for the treasury as well as for the people at large.
After all, low grain prices harm farmers – this is a well-known saying. If grain can be exported, its price will gradually rise and the villages and farms will have more to depend on. Moreover, the grain exported from Khabarovsk and Heihe is all transported by ship. Going by the river customs duties, 0.06666 yuan is levied on each 100 jin of wheat. Each pud is 30 jin. If 10 million pud of wheat is exported, equivalent to 300 million jin, a total of more than 222,190 liang in duties may be levied. Even if half were exported by rail, a remaining 5 million pud would still be transported by ship, and a total of more than 111,090 liang in duties may be levied. It would indeed be a great boost to the income of your customs.
One may wonder: If wheat were exported, what would the people of North Manchuria eat? Or one may suspect that most of the Russian workers’ and soldiers’ party are pro-German and, if wheat were exported, would it not be used to supply the German people, like feeding thieves? We carefully consider the facts in order to address these queries. In the North Manchurian region, the people are simple and mainly eat grains such as sorghum, millet and maize. The conduct of coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, funerals and sacrifices, as well as purchasing of farm equipment, are entirely dependent on the sale of soybean and wheat to meet their needs. By lifting the embargo now, not only would the people’s food supply be unaffected, it would also greatly support the farmers’ daily expenses.
The merchants then conclude with an argument not unlike that of the Americans’, that supplying the Russians would generate goodwill and draw support away from the Bolsheviks.
It is a common sentiment, in general, for one’s own self-interest to be superceded by the desire to save others. All along, the export of wheat from North Manchuria to Russia has been sufficient only for the needs of the Russian people, with no surplus that can be transferred to another country. And now Russia is at war, with successive years of drought and famine. Of the members of the workers’ and soldiers’ party, those who oppose the government make up one or two out of ten; those forced to do so by cold and hunger in fact make up eight or nine out of ten. If the wheat embargo is lifted now, the hungry Russian people will have food. It may not even be sufficient to save them, so how can they relieve another country? Moreover, with sufficient food and drink, the workers’ and soldiers’ party – which always hungers after disorder – may be diminished somewhat. If so, our country’s border defences will not come under threat and Russia’s internal troubles may also lessen. Such benefits would naturally be acknowledged by the former Russian government as well.
In sum, the export of wheat will not only favour the merchants, but also benefit the farmers; not only increase tax income, but also resolve border troubles. And exercising the principle of saving a neighbour from catastrophe – that would be the utmost expression of kindness. One act alone would bring many virtues, why fear a bad outcome? We presume to ask your office to convey this to the Finance Ministry and bring it before the State Council for discussion and negotiation with the diplomatic corps, that export shipments of wheat via the Siberian railway, Heihe and Khabarovsk etc may be permitted, to relieve the merchants’ hardship and bring benefit to the masses. We await your instructions with deepest gratitude.Letter from the Maritime Customs, 11 May 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 367-368.
The language of the petition, replete with ethical terms, reveals an expansive conception of the merchants’ social role. Merchants (shang) ranked low in the Confucian social hierarchy. During the late-Qing reform movement, however, commercial strength became linked to national revival and merchants were expected to play a role in bolstering China’s economic status. At the same time, they drew upon Buddhist and Confucian ideas of virtue to justify economic goals – not unlike the Christian arguments employed by some American anti-bolsheviks during this period.
Changing circumstances in Siberia – most notably, the revolt of the Czech Legion – brought an end to the embargo in late-June. Nevertheless, as commerce suffered further shocks from the Russian Civil War, Chinese merchants continued to issue similar petitions. The language of protest only grew more strident as merchants came under direct attack from both Reds and Whites.