Following the Armistice of November 1918, the Allies set about not only to make peace, but also to redraw the map of Europe – and, to some extent, of the rest of the world. Punitive terms would be imposed on the defeated Central Powers. The status of their colonial possessions would be redefined. At the same time, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the ongoing dissolution of the Ottoman led to a clamour for national self-determination and a rejection of imperialist diplomacy. This new spirit was fostered by US President Woodrow Wilson’s highly influential Fourteen Points, which spoke of making the world “safe for every peace-loving nation which…wishes to live its own life, determine its own institutions, be assured of justice and fair dealing by the other peoples of the world”.
It was in this ferment that the Paris Peace Conference opened in January 1919. China’s hopes were high, for it had sent hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers to the Allies and entered the war after a serious political crisis, all in the hope of securing a favourable postwar settlement. Its involvement in Siberia was also partly predicated on winning Allied favour. Now that the Allies were victorious, the Chinese delegation – led by Foreign Minister Lu Zhengxiang and including the Ambassadors to France (Hu Weide) and America (Wellington Koo) – called for the return of Germany’s colonial possessions in Shandong and an end to imperialism in China. Beijing had only joined the Allies in August 1917 and its direct military participation in WWI was limited. To strengthen their hand in Paris, the delegation asked for an account of Chinese activities in the Siberian Intervention.
Ambassador to France Hu wired to request a detailed report on the outcome of the war in Siberia, as a basis for negotiations. This was conveyed to the War Participation Bureau and Your Ministry for common action. We have now received the Bureau’s response, together with a report listing our country’s active contributions to the war in Siberia. The original document is copied here for Your Ministry’s consideration, with the request that it be jointly dispatched to the Ambassador.
The report went on to list China’s role in the Intervention in the Maritime Province, Manchuria and Outer Mongolia. Despite Yang Zengxin’s sheltering of White escapees in Ghulja and Ili, Xinjiang was not part of the Siberian Intervention per se and hence not included. The Maritime Province and Manchurian sections are reproduced below.
Our country’s active contributions to the war in Siberia are listed as follows.
In the Maritime Province:
1. Beginning in August last year, our country successively deployed troops to Russia’s Maritime Province. The total number of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineering, logistics and machine-gun troops is around 4,000, as well as one warship, which participated in the war alongside Allied forces.
2. On 26 August last year, the Allied forces in Vladivostok implemented a joint offensive. Our forces assembled in the Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk area and took charge of military preparations there, including guarding the railway from Suifenhe to Nikol’sk-Ussuriisk. The Reds [lit. “enemy party”] repeatedly sought to damage it but they were all attacked and driven away by our forces, such that the line was kept safe and passage was uninterrupted.
3. The enemy on the Ussuri line retreated in stages. When there was a slight shortfall in Allied strength, our troops immediately advanced to reinforce them and render support. Subsequently, our troops took up the responsibility of guarding the Ussuri line in the Makebeiluo [?] area.
4. After the enemy retreated to Khabarovsk, our cavalry and machine-gun units pursued them together with Japanese forces.
5. The Suchan area [today Partizansk] is the region in Ussuri with the highest coal production and is militarily highly important. Our troops joined with American forces to form a unit in charge of protecting the area, which has been kept safe.
6. Vladivostok is the military command centre of Russian Siberia. The Allies resolved to establish a joint garrison there. We have also deployed troops to take up this responsibility together with naval infantry units.
7. When military conferences are held in Vladivostok, our forces consistently send representatives to participate. All facilities and expenses are equally shared among us and Britain, France, America, Japan and other countries.
China’s military role in the Siberian Intervention was largely confined to the Ussuri region. Of particular note is the relatively large number of troops involved, under 33rd Regiment commander Song Huanzhang. If accurate, this would have put the Chinese contingent above those of the British, French and Italians.
In Jilin and Heilongjiang:
1. When Russia and Germany concluded a separate peace, the Reds and enemy POWs plotted to occupy the Chinese Eastern Railway to extend their lines in the east. They colluded with the leader of the Harbin workers’ and soldiers’ party, Riutin, to incite tens of thousands of CER troops and workers to respond from afar; their influence was immense. In ten days, we assembled and deployed strong troops along the line to suppress them and, after a lengthy and pitched battle, the Reds exhausted their strength and surrendered. They were then disarmed by our troops, so that they could not achieve their aims.
2. After the Russian soldiers and workers on the CER belonging to the Reds were disarmed by us, all railway administration in the CER zone came under the protection of our troops, which are stationed at intervals along the line. In more than a year, merchants and travellers are calm, railway administration is improving daily and military transport has benefited from smooth traffic.
3. Troops were deployed to guard Suifenhe, Manzhouli and Heihe. Military craft were dispatched to patrol the banks along the Huntongjiang [the confluence of the Amur and Songhua rivers]. These were to provide a show of force and long-range support, such that more than ten thousand Reds and enemy POWs would not harry Semenov’s forces.
4. Semenov’s forces were repeatedly routed, whereupon we consistently sheltered them and allowed them to recruit soldiers in preparation for a future advance. We aided in the shipping of military supplies and weapons to relieve his army, and protected their flanks from attack.
5. Grain for the Reds was confiscated and exports prohibited in order to secretly cut off their food supply.
6. Additional troops were sent to take over the batteries in the Khingan mountain range and protect important installations.
7. Troops were sent to guard the railway, weapons and ammunition in Harbin, to prevent them from being used by the enemy.
8. The Reds [at Manzhouli] were advised to adopt a five-week ceasefire, so that Semenov’s troops could make arrangements unhurriedly and the Allies would have ample time to deploy their forces.
9. All Allied troops were allowed to pass westwards [through the CER]. Barracks were vacated for them to prevent exposure [of their plans]. Assistance was rendered to all the troops in their duties in the rear, relieving them of any worry.
10. Hundreds of thousands of rubles belonging to the Whites in Blagoveshchensk were protected and used to supply Horvath. More than 400 German and Austrian POWs were arrested to reduce the enemy’s fighting capacity.Letter from the State Council, 22 February 1919. Zhong-E guanxi shiliao, Minguo jiunian zhi banian (1917-1919): chubing Xiboliya, pp. 471-472.
The claims for Manchuria were far more contentious, primarily centering on China’s ejection of the CER’s Russian railway guard in December 1917-January 1918 and their replacement with Chinese troops. Although there had indeed been a struggle for power over the Railway zone between Riutin’s Bolsheviks and general manager Horvath – and although some of the guard had to be disarmed by force – there had not been a “lengthy and pitched battle” in Harbin. Similarly, traffic on the CER had not been as smooth as the Chinese described. As we have seen, the Allies were at this very stage proposing to manage the CER themselves – an outcome that the Chinese themselves admitted was due to the chaotic conditions on the line.
Similarly, the sheltering of White forces – especially Semenov’s – was highly contentious. As the links above show, local authorities in Manchuria saw Semenov’s, Horvath’s and Gamov’s activities as a threat to border security and Chinese sovereignty. Semenov in particular had acquired a reputation for violence against the Chinese diaspora and for being a Japanese pawn. Wherever possible, border officials attempted to disarm fleeing Whites or persuade them to leave Chinese territory. The Chinese approach towards the Whites therefore split between leniency in Beijing – informed by a need to placate the Allies and the Japanese – and a more unyielding attitude at the border.
China’s optimism at the Paris Peace Conference did not last long. At this stage, however, a close adherence to Allied opinion seemed to offer the best chance of achieving its diplomatic goals. It would take the upheaval of the May 4th Movement and the withdrawal of Allied support for the Whites to bring about a reorientation in Beijing’s Russia policy.