Last week’s post looked at how, in the autumn of 1918, White leaders targeted the Chinese diaspora after the Bolsheviks were driven out of the Russian Far East. Normal diplomatic channels could not deal with the problem, since China lacked sufficient consular representation in Russia and Ambassador Kudashev had no clout with the anti-Bolshevik warlords of the frontier. Chinese migrants thus fell back on a time-honoured tradition: organising themselves into diaspora societies for self-defence.
One of the most active of these societies was the Amur Oblast’ Chinese Diaspora Association, based in Blagoveshchensk. As we have seen, there were fears that Blagoveshchensk would be the site of a bloody last stand between the Bolsheviks and a combined force of White cossacks and Japanese troops. This cataclysm did not come to pass and the city fell quickly in September; nevertheless, the diaspora was rattled enough to band together under an ambitious chairman, Yang Hongyu.
Since the western year of 1850 – namely the first year of the Xianfeng reign in China’s former Qing dynasty [should be the 30th year of the Daoguang reign] – the Russian Muraviev advanced along the Argun River valley, selecting a place to establish a city. It was from then that Amur Oblast’, or Blagoveshchensk, was formed. In the past that area was on the frontier, heavily forested and barely developed. Their race was very scarce. Then, to open mines and clear the forest as a basis for colonisation, they induced our Chinese coolies to go abroad for work. At the time diplomatic relations were friendly and there was no ill-treatment whatsoever. Then came the rupture of the Boxer Rebellion; although the Chinese diaspora experienced a serious disaster, after peace was concluded the diaspora underwent decades of recovery. Thus out of consideration for their property, they could not readily move and conducted their business as before.
In recent years, there has been famine in China’s interior and those going abroad to make a living are increasing daily. The number of Chinese residing in the various frontier regions in Amur Oblast’ can be counted no less than in the hundreds of thousands. They are scattered everywhere with no ethnic organisation, like people without a leader. Now that the Russian situation is volatile, the lives and property of the diaspora are on the brink of disaster. In the first year of the Republic , although diaspora associations had been set up, they were all unable to make headway. Currently, with the joint military intervention, there are already Japanese frontline troops who have come and are stationed here. If the diaspora muddles along as before, not only will the future of its property and commerce be in danger, hundreds of thousands of lives have no organisation to protect them if there is an incident.
Hence, witnessing these troubled times, we gathered all the Chinese merchants in Amur Oblast’ for a meeting and resolved to overhaul the former Chinese Diaspora Association, such that if migrants encounter problems or negotiations, there will be an ethnic organisation. Towards our government, it may also use us to obtain information from abroad and about the frontier. In protecting the diaspora, there is also the will to recover national sovereignty. This will kill many birds with one stone; if we slacken for a moment, the opportunity will be lost. Apart from presenting this, we enclose also our regulations for the reference and records of Your Ministry and await Your instructions.
The Association thus began with a fairly positive account of Blagoveshchensk’s history, emphasising the good relations between Russians and Chinese and absence of “ill-treatment”. Even the massacre that accompanied the Boxer Rebellion was glossed over. Instead, the document emphasised the size and wealth of the Chinese diaspora, which had to be protected from Russian upheavals and Japanese ambition. Such protection was framed as a crucial element of national sovereignty and the recovery of China’s rights. The Association then set out its regulations as follows.
1. Name. The organisation will be called the Amur Oblast’ Chinese Diaspora Association
2. Location. The Association is established in Russia’s Amur Oblast’ City [Blagoveshchensk].
3. Purpose. The Association’s purpose is to protect migrants’ lives and safeguard their property.
4. Structure. The Association comprises Chinese migrants residing throughout Russia’s Amur Oblast’. In more remote areas, upon studying the complexity of the situation, the establishment of a branch association will be considered.
5. Numbers. The Association will have one chairman, four deputy chairmen, eight councillors, ten executives, four secretaries, two accountants, 12 investigators, one translator and one interpreter. There is no limit to the number of members.
6. Elections. The Association will adopt the usual method of elections. All male migrants residing in Amur Oblast’ have the right to vote but, with nominations, those without a corresponding amount of property may not be elected as Association officials. This does not include employees.
7. Voting. The Association will adopt anonymous voting. Those with a majority of votes will be the chairman and deputy chairmen; those with the next highest will be the councillors and executives.
8. Responsibilities. The Association’s chairman will conduct all matters for the entire organisation, with the deputy chairmen assisting. If, for some reason, the chairman cannot be present, the deputies will take over his responsibilities. The councillors are responsible for deliberating matters, the executives will be assigned to carry out tasks, the secretaries will be in charge of correspondence and documents, and the interpreters will convey matters to the Russian authorities.
9. Terms of office. The term of office for the chairman, deputies, councillors and executives will be two years. The secretaries, accountants, investigators, translator and interpreter are not included therein.
10. Authority. All the Association’s members entrust the chairman with carrying out its affairs.
11. Sessions. The Association’s will have three types of meetings: annual, regular and extraordinary. Annual meetings are to take place once a year and regular meetings, once a month; there are no fixed dates for extraordinary meetings.
12. Calling of meetings. The Association’s meetings will all be convened by the chairman.
13. Procedure. The Association’s meetings – whether annual, regular or extraordinary – will all be presided over by the chairman.
14. Regulations for discussions. The Association’s meetings will open with an announcement of the agenda by the chairman. A two-thirds majority of the all the members is required for a resolution.
15. Association seal. If, in the Association’s correspondence, there is a blank, it will be difficult to demonstrate its good faith. It is proposed to carve a wooden seal with the words “Seal of the Amur Oblast’ Chinese Diaspora Association”, to be used when necessary as a sign of our rigorousness.
16. Negotiations. If the Association encounters matters for negotiation between migrants and Russians, it must abide by the principles of a peaceful approach, recovery of sovereignty and preservation of friendly relations.
17. Adjudication. If the Association encounters disputes between migrants, it must settle them peacefully without resorting to lawsuits. Serious matters involving civil or criminal law must be taken to nearby Chinese officials.
If there are any items omitted in the above articles, they may be studied and amended at any time.Letter from chairman of the Amur Oblast' Chinese Diaspora Association Yang Hongyu, 22 November 1918 (sent 11 November). Zhong-E guanxi shiliao Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919). E zhengbian yu yiban jiaoshe (1), pp. 575-578.
Unlike the Petrograd-based Association of Chinese in Russia, the Amur Oblast’ Association more closely resembled diaspora merchant organisations, such as the chambers of commerce. Only male migrants could elect the committee and only those with certain property qualifications could become post-holders. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that chairman Yang Hongyu was originally the leader of the city’s Chinese chamber of commerce. He proved to be an active leader and, under his watch, numerous reports were produced for Beijing and the Manchurian authorities.
The Association was certainly not unique: It coexisted with other diaspora societies, from chambers of commerce to hometown and clan associations. Like other organisations of its kind – not only in Russia, but also internationally – it wielded the language of national sovereignty and prestige, a testament to how such ideas had become widespread across the global diaspora.