In previous posts, we saw how the Reds were driven from power in Siberia and the Russian Far East in the summer and autumn of 1918. They were replaced by several anti-Bolshevik governments – from Derber in Vladivostok to the Provisional Siberian Government in Omsk – which sought to gain political legitimacy, administer their territories and win Allied recognition. At the same time, however, they were joined by White warlords who were rather less inclined to rebuild institutions and restore the economy. Large swathes of the Sino-Russian frontier thus came under the control of characters such as G.M. Semenov, I.P. Kalmykov and P.P. Ivanov-Rinov, known more for their misgovernment and profligacy than as stable alternatives to Soviet rule.
This atamanshchina was still in its early days in November 1918. Nevertheless, as a large, wealthy and mobile frontier population, the Chinese merchant diaspora soon experienced some of the abuses of White warlordism.
According to a report from commander Che Qingyun of the Chinese Eastern Railway garrison headquarters:
‘I have seen how, since the internal disorder in Russia, the lives and property of foreign merchants have also been caught up in the maelstrom; the livelihoods of the people residing there are also many times more difficult. Previously, although one could say that the Reds were high-handed and unreasonable, yet they were still able to honour the rights of other countries. Thankfully, no cases of infringement occurred and foreign merchants were thereby also able to live in peace. Then when the Reds went westwards and the Whites came east, all of our emigrants residing there were again plunged into danger. After all, although the Reds’ conduct was often out of bounds, they still had a conscience; whereas today, the Whites have made things worse, going so far as to act like bandits. Cases where emigrants have been abused are frequently heard of. After Semenov entered the border, he robbed us of money and property and murdered our people. Such incorrigible behaviour has happened time and again. For example, a few days ago there was an emigre merchant who was transporting goods and, as he approached the vicinity of Oloviannaia, he was murdered by that party [the Whites], who then went on to divide up his goods and money. What have our emigrants done to deserve such abuse? Hearing it both enraged and pained me.
This office then sent an envoy, Zheng Xitai, to the area to investigate. The incident did indeed occur. So high-handed and unreasonable is that party, that they are at great odds with the principle of friendly relations. Furthermore, the chairman of the Nerchinsk Diaspora Association, Qu Fucheng, had no avenue for recourse, hence he had to come to our office with the envoy to lodge the complaint. This was the first count. Also, the chairman of the Sretensk Diaspora Association, He Yongli, went to the relevant authorities two weeks ago to report that emigre vegetable farmers in the city had suddenly been murdered by Russian bandits by night. The authorities ignored the matter and forced chairman He and others to go and watch over the corpse. At the slightest disagreement, they were imprisoned and only released after three days. This was the second count. Again, at Kuenga station 35 Russian miles from Nerchinsk, there were eight emigre businesses which still stocked goods from before the Red withdrawal. At the time there was no customs duty, hence these goods, which were bought several months before, did not have customs levies paid on them. This was the case not only for our emigre merchants alone. Unexpectedly, that party [the Whites] wilfully and arbitrarily declared that the goods belonging to these merchants had evaded customs duties. They forcibly implemented the tax regulations and requisitioned all the goods, worth more than 80,000 rubles, as well as imprisoned eight people. Laws cannot be applied retroactively, but that party has no understanding of legal principles, unfairly exacting punishments. This is the third count of abuse towards our commerce. Also, that party is levying a poll tax on foreigners and their own citizens. For the British, Americans, French, Japanese and other foreigners, each person is taxed one rouble per year, their citizens are taxed only 40 kopeks, whereas for our countrymen it is four rubles. The contrast shows that they are indeed too harsh. Where is their fairness towards an ally? This is the fourth count by which they belittle national rights and treat us unequally.
In sum, that party has acted in brutal and unlawful ways too numerous to count, and our country’s consuls are unable to fulfil their duty of protection. When matters arise they are feeble and vacillating, allowing the migrants to become prey, placing lives in peril. How can they be of any help in future? According to the present complaints from the Nerchinsk Diaspora Association chairman Qu Fucheng, all these are not false alarms. I am responsible for border security and have the duty to investigate unlawfulness and protect emigrants. Since that party has carried out such brutal acts, how can I stay silent? Hence I present this for your consideration.’
Based on this, one can see that the Whites are so cruel and unreasonable that it will greatly undermine diplomatic goodwill and the future of joint military action. If we do not negotiate seriously, how can we safeguard the emigrants and consolidate national sovereignty? Apart from writing to the consul-general in Vladivostok and the consul in Irkutsk straightaway, to render adequate protection as well as to investigate and respond, I bring this to the Ministry’s attention so that it may inform the Russian ambassador, negotiate strenuously and demand compensation. I hope for a swift handling of the matter and response, out of deep concern for our common cause.Letter from Bao Guiqing, 12 November 1918 (sent 4 November). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 565-566.
Commander Che’s comparison between the Reds and Whites gave the former too much credit for “conscience” and “honouring…national rights”. In Irkutsk, the Reds had forced Chinese merchants to make “revolutionary donations” and threatened to evict Chinese workers from the surrounding mines in retaliation for the Allied grain embargo. Chinese workers were also harassed in Vladivostok, although the Allied presence served as a restraint. But at this point the worst excesses of Soviet rule were still in the future. By contrast, in just two months – Nerchinsk and Sretensk had been occupied in early September – the Whites proved themselves capable of outright robbery and murder. They added insult to injury by continuing with discriminatory tsarist policies that penalised the Chinese diaspora financially, with the aim of restricting Chinese migration. Che’s palpable indignation was therefore shared by fellow diplomats and officials on the frontier, for whom pre-revolutionary anti-Chinese discrimination was a live issue.
Yet, as Che and Bao both pointed out, the diaspora had limited recourse. Despite the size of the Chinese diaspora in Siberia and the Russian Far East, the tsarist government had only permitted the Chinese to establish two consulates, namely in Vladivostok and Irkutsk. Both were overburdened and depended on the personal abilities of the consul to conduct business effectively. In Beijing, the central government could attempt to negotiate with Ambassador Kudashev, but he carried little weight with any of the anti-Bolshevik regimes – to say nothing of the Soviet government and the White warlords. The community was therefore obliged to defend and administer itself, with diaspora associations acting as interlocutors with Chinese officialdom.
Che’s report provided a taste of things to come under the White warlords. Their maltreatment of the Chinese diaspora only added to the litany of complaints that China would soon have against the anti-Bolshevik movement. For the time being, however, Allied support for the Whites obliged the Chinese to supply and shelter warlords such as Semenov, while the diaspora community turned to self-organisation to protect its interests.