In March 1918, Blagoveshchensk was shaken by an abortive anti-bolshevik uprising led by Ataman I.M. Gamov. The city’s proximity to the Chinese border meant that the latter were drawn inexorably into the conflict: Japanese officers demanded that Chinese troops intervene against the Reds, while Russian “refugee warriors” fled to China after the revolt was crushed. Worse still, thousands of Chinese emigrants lived and worked in Blagoveshchensk and its neighbouring gold mines. The impact of the nascent Civil War on them was still unknown.
When Beijing sent a fact-finding mission to the Sino-Russian border in July, therefore, Blagoveshchensk was one of the places of interest. It seems that the observers included officials from the Foreign, Finance and Communications ministries; the report on Blagoveshchensk, submitted by a member of the Customs Board, described a city still reeling from the uprising of four months before.
According to a report from envoy Wen Pu, sent by this Board to investigate the situation in Manchuria:
‘On 18 July I proceeded from Harbin, reaching Heihe on the 26th. I was in Heihe for three days, crossing to Blagoveshchensk on the Russian bank twice. At first, I had planned to go to Mohe, but the water was too shallow for ships to pass, so I returned to Harbin. Matters pertaining to the investigations before and after this will be sent in a separate report.’
An investigation of the situation in Blagoveshchensk
The day after arriving in Heihe, I arranged with Wang Jianxin, the head of the diplomatic affairs section of the circuit intendant’s office, to take a small steamer across the river to the north bank, namely the southern border of Blagoveshchensk town. We saw more than 20 ships berthed along the bank, along with several tugboats. Wang said, ‘Before the disorder in Russia, these ships mostly berthed on the south bank. Now they are managed by the bolsheviks and apart from those ships sailing to and from Khabarovsk, the remainder mostly dock at the north bank. Upon disembarking from the boat [?], we transferred to a horse carriage to tour the town.
Although the shops are in business, they do not stock many goods, the reason being that since the outbreak of the European War, the Russian people were drafted to the battlefield and work has ceased for a long time. Moreover, with the disorder in Russia and disruption to transport, there is no way to ship goods and Russian goods can scarcely be found. Only Chinese and Japanese goods make up for the shortfall. When the Reds and Whites were fighting, many of the inhabitants had fled. Now those who still have not left are only guardians and caretakers. Blagoveshchensk was a thriving and important Russian town, but after the fires of war, it has suddenly become a bleak and dismal place. This is only because the bolsheviks fought for power and placed the lives and homes of the Russian people in peril, how lamentable it is.
We met the chairman of the Chinese chamber of commerce, Yang Hongyu, who said, ‘Of the Chinese trading here, there are more than 5,000. East of the city, in the Zeya River area – formerly our Jingqili River – there are several gold mines with an estimated total of more than 100,000 Chinese workers, no less than the number of Chinese workers in Irkutsk oblast’. If legal disputes with Russians arise, some are dealt with by the Heihe circuit intendant; those cases not known to the circuit intendant are adjudicated solely by Russian officials.’
Since Russia permitted us to establish a consulate in Irkutsk oblast’ and the circumstances in Blagoveshchensk are similar, it seems that we should draw on this precedent to set up a consulate there or in Khabarovsk, in order to protect the diaspora merchants. As for whether it is possible for the relevant agencies to carry this out, I seek your advice on its implementation.Letter from the Customs Board, 19 August (sent 17 August). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo liunian zhi banian (1917-1919). Dongbei bianfang (1), pp. 363-364.
Wen’s report was revealing. First, it demonstrated the links between Chinese officialdom and diaspora merchants: The chamber of commerce was expected to act as an interlocutor for the community in Blagoveshchensk, and Wen encouraged Beijing to give greater protection to the merchants, while curiously omitting the more numerous workers. Chamber chairman Yang was also quick to mention that the Zeya River area had been Chinese, deftly appealing to historical memories of tsarist encroachment and establishing his nationalist credentials before his guests.
Second, Wen’s description of Blagoveshchensk was tempered by some amount of opportunism. Until then, tsarist authorities had attempted to limit the number of Chinese diplomatic offices in Russian territory, apart from the embassy in Petrograd and consulates in Vladivostok and Irkutsk. Now the Chinese community was in need of support and the Russians were no longer in a position to resist. Having witnessed the collapse of Russian authority in Blagoveshchensk, Wen could propose that China take the chance to set up a consulate there or even farther afield. His suggestion would soon be echoed by other officials with first-hand knowledge of Russian conditions.
The mission wrote up other reports on the situation in Manzhouli, Harbin, Hailar, Heihe and along the Amur river. On a more defensive level, its observers recommended that China increase its military presence on the border to deal with the escalating insurgency. But, like Wen, they also went one step further, calling on China to make use of the disorder in Russia. Chief among these was an expansion in Chinese trade along the Amur, which directly involved the problem of shipping rights that had lain dormant since the 1858 Aigun Treaty. Merchants would play a critical role in this effort, backed up by the negotiations of Chinese officials in Manchuria and Beijing. A shared sense of opportunism, inflected through nationalist language, would drive much of China’s activities through the next few years of the Civil War.