In a previous post, we looked at how White leaders in the Russian Far East employed large numbers of Chinese soldiers, even as anti-Bolshevik propaganda elsewhere exploited racialised imagery of the Reds’ internationalist detachments. Horvath, Semenov and Kalmykov all supplemented their forces with Chinese manpower, despite Chinese officials’ attempts to prohibit them from doing so. The subsequent casualties, clashes between Russian and Chinese recruits, and threats to local security only added to the tensions between the Chinese authorities and their anti-Bolshevik neighbours.
As the Civil War progressed, however, more information arrived on the scale of Chinese involvement in the Red Army. The majority of these soldiers had been wartime auxiliary workers in European Russia. Numbering at least 100,000, the vast majority were left to fend for themselves as the tsarist army collapsed and the revolution descended into violence. Far from home, with no means of subsistence or repatriation, they formed a ready pool of volunteers for the Reds.
The Chinese soldiers recruited by general manager Horvath are all bandits, repeatedly creating disturbances at Grodekovo; their interpreter Cai is the ringleader. Previously, they robbed 12 Chinese businesses and caused trouble for the chamber of commerce’s bailiff, whereupon this consulate wrote to ask Horvath to rein them in and punish them. According to a meeting with Brandt [Ia.Ia. Brandt, sinologist and member of Horvath’s cabinet – R.L.], Horvath has agreed to punish them, yet recently their disturbances have been extremely violent. It appears that Horvath considers it rightful to use such Chinese soldiers knowing full well that they are bandits, adamantly refusing to discipline them, while Chinese merchants suffer their mistreatment. This is intolerable. Today the Grodekovo chamber of commerce came to ask for help, saying that there is a company of troops under Song [Huanzhang] in the area and if they could intervene seriously to protect the Chinese migrants, they [the bandit soldiers] would be cowed. If not, they asked that the bandit soldiers be dispersed, to save the people from disaster. The difficulties faced by this consulate in handling matters are a hundred times greater than before. As for how this should be dealt with, I request your instructions as soon as possible.
Also, the Bolsheviks west of Russia’s Ural mountains have forced thousands of Chinese to enlist as soldiers under the name of the Yellow Red Army. There have been many instances of injury and death. Recently, in the Ermi area [sic, probably Perm], in one battle 300 Chinese were killed; it pained me to hear of this. It is said that when some Americans were arrested by the Bolsheviks, the British government entrusted neutral countries with issuing a protest and protecting them. Our citizens are suffering such brutality, if we persist in neglecting this, what will people say of us? I venture to ask the government to come up with a way to protest this, even if it is ineffective, it is better than silence.
Also, I am blunt and unsophisticated, and at this time and place am by far not the best man for the job. Recently my energy has been waning daily and I have been struck by many illnesses. Previously, I wrote that before the disorder in Vladivostok had calmed, I would fill this post for the moment. Now, thankfully, the area is out of danger and I can ask for a replacement. I earnestly ask that you consider this and select an official to succeed me, so that I may return home to seek medical treatment. For this I would be very grateful. Moreover, the current circumstances are extraordinary and the consulate has too many debts. Sending one month’s expenses would hardly make a dent in the matter, the constant feeling of want is also not favourable. I ask that the accumulated arrears in expenses be disbursed so that the debts can be cleared, and that a 2,000 yuan supplement for telegraph fees be sent. This would be very much appreciated. Also, secretary Zhao Kuilong took up his post yesterday, please put this on record.Telegram from Shao Hengjun, 27 September 1918 (sent 26 September). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), p. 521.
Shao’s telegram approached White and Red recruitment differently. The former was an immediate threat to security: Armed Chinese troops turned to banditry and targeted other members of the diaspora. But the latter was no less important because it was a humanitarian issue. Chinese soldiers were dying in the battlefields of the Civil War. Moreover, if the Beijing government failed to protect them, it would constitute a serious blow to national prestige. Great powers such as America and Britain intervened to protect their citizens over much less. Why then should China not do the same?
A lack of firm diplomatic support undermined any attempt to address this humanitarian crisis. Following the March Revolution, the Chinese embassy in Petrograd and the Association of Chinese in Russia undertook relief and repatriation efforts among wartime workers. With the Bolshevik coup in November and the outbreak of Civil War, however, Ambassador Liu Jingren – like many of his Allied counterparts – was evacuated first to Vologda and then back to China in February 1918. His responsibilities were delegated to the Danish ambassador and a skeleton staff of three embassy secretaries. Cut off from regular communication with Beijing, they were overwhelmed by the scale of the problem.
The matter of Russians recruiting Chinese workers for military service was reported in detail in the wire of 19 June, but no reply was received. Recently we have heard that in the Russian capital and elsewhere, unemployed Chinese workers have been drafted into Red detachments by the Soviet government in extremely large numbers. For our part, it seems that we should protest, but at this time we cannot communicate with the Danish ambassador. Could the Ministry wire Ambassador Yan [Yan Huiqing, Chinese ambassador to Denmark – R.L.] to request the Danish foreign ministry to instruct their ambassador in Russia to lodge a serious protest with the Soviet government, so as to avoid giving others a pretext?
Moreover, secretary Li [Shizhong] said that he had previously met with Far Eastern Section chief [A.N.] Voznesenskii in the Russian capital and brought this matter up. Voznesenskii answered that they would try to restrict this but, if many voluntarily joined the Red detachments, his government, in keeping with the principle of [missing], would find it hard to stop them. [Missing] Secretary Li called these Chinese workers to the Embassy and informed them of what was right and wrong. The workers, with tears in their eyes, answered that they could not bear to forget or forsake their homeland. It was only because of the disorder in Russia and the lack of work, they had no means to return home, no ability to sustain themselves, and so had no choice but to do this. Now the number of workers joining the Red detachments has exceeded a thousand; in future they can be counted in the tens of thousands.Telegram from Embassy secretary Zheng Yanxi, 9 October 1918 (sent 6 October). Ibid., pp. 537-538.
Voznesenskii’s reply was disingenuous: The Bolsheviks were actively drafting Chinese soldiers and had no intention of scaling back. According to John Erickson, in August 1918 a Headquarters for the Formation of Chinese Military Detachments was established in the Red Army; some 30-70,000 Chinese eventually fought on the side of the Reds during the Civil War. The embassy secretaries and Association of Chinese in Russia continued to press for repatriation, but their efforts were a drop in the ocean.
Still, both wires emphasised the emotive and nationalist dimension of the crisis. If Beijing remained unmoved by the images of Chinese killed in battle or tearfully calling for help, how could it claim to be a civilised nation? If it failed to act effectively to defend its citizens, how could it rank as a great power? Such implications were not lost on the Foreign Ministry, which issued repeated protests to Russian Ambassador Kudashev and to Allied diplomats. But with no means of negotiating officially with the Soviet government, these efforts were doomed to failure. In the meantime more Chinese workers swelled the ranks of the Red Army, to become mythical symbols of revolutionary solidarity for the future Chinese Communist Party.