Merchant Opportunism in Khabarovsk

With the advent of Allied military intervention in Siberia, the Russian Civil War entered a new phase in the region. International attention was brought to bear on vital transport arteries in Manchuria and Vladivostok, gradually bringing them under Allied control. Foreign troops, weapons and money poured in to drive the Reds from power. The White movement was given a new lease of life as new, anti-bolshevik regimes sprang up in Harbin, Grodekovo, Vladivostok and Omsk. In Beijing, the central government actively supported the Intervention as a member of the Allies; on the Sino-Russian frontier, local officials struggled to deal with the emerging threats to border security and China’s command over its own territory.

The Chinese diaspora, too, was drawn into the conflict. We have already seen how the disorder that accompanied the November Revolution affected the Chinese merchant communities in Vladivostok and Blagoveshchensk, as well as how the Allied grain embargo crippled Chinese companies in Harbin that traded with Russia. Speaking through their chambers of commerce, they called on the Chinese authorities to protect their interests in Russia and enhance China’s international status more assertively. Such appeals only grew more insistent as fresh fighting broke out between Reds, Whites and Allied forces in autumn 1918, as the following letter from the Khabarovsk general chamber of commerce illustrates.

Chinese women in Khabarovsk. Source.


Our humble chamber resides in Khabarovsk in Russia, which is adjacent to Suiyuan County in Jilin Province, no more than 50 li at its nearest. Ever since that country changed its system of government, factional conflict has been fierce, each vying against the other and carving our their own fiefdoms, such that disorder lurks everywhere and us emigrants are in peril. We had previously wired the Minister to come up with a means of protection, which we humbly signed and presented. But since the Reds seized control of the country, internal governance has fallen into ruin and they have arbitrarily introduced equality of property, the people’s livelihoods are gone. The Czechs (a country subordinate to Russia) rose up in Vladivostok, turned their weapons around and the Reds already cannot hold out. Now the Whites [sic, likely Reds], in their panic, are like trapped beasts lashing out, and there is a fear that they will burn and loot everything to the ground. We earnestly wish that Chinese troops will enter the border so that we may have help from outside and thus gain protection. The Reds themselves know that their strength is ebbing and they cannot sustain themselves for long. Moreover, Japanese warships have entered Nikolaevsk harbour and one fears that they will take the opportunity to fish in muddy waters, creating another Korean tragedy.  Hence while there are advantages to be had in this internal struggle, we wish for China to reap the gains and not for Japan to be the beneficiary. Our humble chamber is ignorant about international diplomacy and only dimly understands the general situation. But our Minister’s vision is far-reaching and he must have weighed matters up. This is an opportunity to be taken, indeed the moment of a thousand years. Thus we are relating the situation in Khabarovsk for your consideration.

Letter from the Khabarovsk chamber of commerce, 29 August 1918. Zhong-e guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, p. 303.
Ataman Kalmykov with members of the American Expeditionary Forces in Khabarovsk. From the Robert Eichelberger collection. Source.

Circumstances in Khabarovsk had reached a critical point by the time this letter was written. The Czechoslovak Legion, having launched a successful uprising in Vladivostok, was moving north along the Ussuri front towards the city. It was joined by anti-bolshevik commander Ataman I.P. Kalmykov, who had established himself at Grodekovo in July. As the Siberian Intervention commenced, Japanese, American, British and French forces arrived in the region in August; the Imperial Japanese Army’s 12th Division played a particularly active role in the Maritime Province. Pitched battles broke out in the third week of August between the Reds on one side and the Czechoslovaks, Kalmykov and the Japanese on the other as the latter advanced towards Khabarovsk.

The Khabarovsk chamber’s letter was therefore an appeal for protection, not only against the violence of the Civil War but also against Japanese imperial ambitions. Japan’s dispatch of warships to Nikolaevsk was framed as another iteration of the Sino-Japanese War, when a domestic rebellion in Korea escalated tensions between China and Japan, led to the landing of a Japanese expeditionary force at Incheon, and provoked an all-out battle between both countries that resulted in a humiliating Chinese defeat. Nevertheless, in the midst of fear there was also a sense of opportunism. Echoing the arguments used by Japanese proponents of intervention, the chamber argued that the disorder in Russia was the “moment of a thousand years”. China, not Japan, should take advantage of Russia’s weakness. In addition to this letter, the chamber also sent messages to the governors of the Manchurian provinces of Jilin and Heilongjiang. Its leader travelled to Harbin, writing to the garrison there to call for Chinese troops to be sent to Khabarovsk. Another representative was sent to Vladivostok to seek help from the Chinese consul-general.

“Our cavalry’s occupied Khabarovsk and march-past took place in front of the enemy’s gun-boats”. Japanese print from the series Illustration of the Siberian War, 1919. Source.

Khabarovsk fell to Kalmykov and the Japanese in the first week of September. Despite the merchants’ fears, the city was abandoned by the Reds without much fighting. Armed with the chamber’s appeals, however, Vladivostok consul-general Shao Hengjun, Jilin governor Guo Zongxi, its military governor Meng Enyuan and Heilongjiang military governor Bao Guiqing pressed Beijing to send troops together with the Allies, in order to protect the Chinese diaspora and place at least some curbs on Japanese activity. Given that no direct reply was forthcoming from the Beijing government, either to the chamber’s letter or to the wires from Shao, Guo, Meng and Bao, it was therefore the Manchurian governors who emerged as champions of the diaspora in this episode.

Nevertheless, protection of one’s diaspora – or revenge for their mistreatment –  had emerged as a compelling diplomatic justification for military intervention. The Great Powers employed it in the Boxer Rebellion; Japanese hawks would resort to it during the Russian Civil War. In conveying the Khabarovsk chamber’s appeals, therefore, Manchurian officials not only bolstered their legitimacy among Chinese migrants, but also spoke a language that was internationally persuasive. Beijing’s silence was in fact uncharacteristic of its approach to diaspora petitions. As the sending of the Hai Rong to Vladivostok showed, when defence of migrant interests dovetailed with China’s diplomatic objectives, both central and local authorities were not averse to using the former to shore up the latter. This was a pattern that would continue as the Russian Civil War entered a new phase: that of the White Terror.

3 thoughts on “Merchant Opportunism in Khabarovsk

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