In earlier posts, we saw how tens of thousands of Chinese wartime workers were trapped in Russia following the disintegration of the tsarist army in 1917. The withdrawal of Allied recognition from the Soviet regime meant that China’s diplomatic presence in European Russia was reduced to a skeleton crew based first in Vologda, then in Archangel. It also meant that Beijing could not negotiate directly with the Soviets to repatriate these workers. The outbreak of Civil War was the final nail in the coffin, cutting off their homeward route through Siberia. By the spring of 1919 many of these workers had endured almost two years of hardship. No small number – anywhere from 30-70,000, according to historians – joined the Red Army.
Chinese officials were acutely aware that the stranded workers constituted a humanitarian crisis. The remaining members of the embassy attempted to repatriate as many workers as they could until the Civil War and Siberian Intervention halted these efforts. Two years in Soviet Russia and service in the Red Army, however, complicated an already desperate situation. As much as these workers needed to be rescued, there was a chance that they had imbibed Bolshevik ideology and were ready to export revolution to China.
In early February 1919, therefore, Allied representatives began warning China about the threat posed by returning workers. General Fujii Kotsuchi of the Japanese Army’s 7th Division was the first to counsel caution, informing Chinese officers that the Soviets had specifically instructed Chinese workers to spread Bolshevism back home. His concerns were shared by British ambassador Sir John Jordan.
Jordan: I have received a telegram from my government saying that, according to an announcement from the Russian Bolshevik regime, crowds of Chinese workers in Russia have been asking to return to their country. However, because the number of people is so large, they have decided to send them back in groups. Now the first group of 300 Chinese workers will return and they are asking for the necessary aid. My opinion is that the matter concerns the repatriation of emigre workers and Your Country should devise a solution for it. My government earnestly wishes to assist from the sidelines. I have come specially to inform you of this matter, not knowing if Your Government will allow these Chinese workers to be repatriated.
Chen: I strongly fear that, in repatriating these Chinese workers, the Russian Bolshevik government harbours the intention of spreading Bolshevism and inciting disorder in China. However, since they are emigre workers, they should of course be allowed to return. Moreover, I have heard that when Chinese workers in Russia cannot find jobs, there have been cases of Russians forcing them to serve as soldiers. The Allied countries all wish to reduce the Bolsheviks’ strength and the Chinese government shares this goal. It naturally wishes to repatriate Chinese workers, so as to fulfil its duty to the Allies. Hence refusing repatriation would also not be expedient. Nevertheless, once these workers arrive in China, they will be placed under strict surveillance before dispersing back home, to nip any disorder in the bud.
Jordan: I will wire my government immediately and inform you again if I receive concrete information on the date when these workers will reach the Chinese border.Meeting between Chen Lu and John Jordan, 25 February 1919, in Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, pp. 67-68.
Although the group of 300 workers never materialised, Beijing took these warnings seriously. The Foreign Ministry quickly instructed border officials from Xinjiang to Jilin to inspect returning workers stringently. This was confirmed at the highest level by the State Council. Nevertheless, even more worrying signs soon emerged that Chinese workers had fallen prey to the Bolshevik contagion. Embassy secretary Zheng Yanxi, en route to Paris to discuss repatriation with China’s delegation in Versailles, wired about a Chinese workers’ group that seemed to have full Soviet support.
A few days ago, the Moscow Chinese Workers’ Association – in the name of the Executive Committee – used the wireless to issue an announcement to the Chinese, Japanese, British, French, American and Siberian governments. It roughly said that the Chinese workers in Russia are in extremely dire straits, and the Association has discussed with and obtained the approval of the Bolshevik government to repatriate an initial 3,000 workers, to return home via Siberia. It also asked the various countries to assist in expediting the journey. Now the diplomatic corps strongly suspects that the Bolsheviks are using Chinese workers to return home and propagandise. Communications between my office and Moscow are disrupted, and it is hard to tell if this is true. However, if the Association indeed manages to repatriate Chinese workers, the border checkpoints should be instructed before they arrive to stringently inspect the luggage of any of these workers on entry, to see if they contain any Bolshevik propaganda and be on alert. As for whether this is appropriate, I seek your advice.Telegram from Zheng Yanxi, 11 March 1919 (sent 5 March). Ibid., pp. 87-88.
Zheng’s wire prompted another round of precautions in China. Warlord Zhang Zuolin, leader of the Fengtian clique, proposed to establish a dedicated checkpoint for returning workers in Hailar. The State Council sent out another alert, this time addressed to all provincial governors, instructing that returnees were to be strictly checked and not allowed to hold gatherings. Provocateurs should be dealt with severely.
But just what was this shadowy Moscow Chinese Workers’ Association? It was in fact none other than the sovietised incarnation of the Association of Diaspora Chinese in Russia, formed in May 1917 to assist in the relief and repatriation of wartime workers. The Association had at first been sponsored by ambassador Liu Jingren and, during the Provisional Government period, worked closely with the embassy and the Petrograd Soviet. Following the November Revolution and Liu’s subsequent withdrawal, however, the Association was increasingly isolated. Its attempts to repatriate Chinese workers depended on the goodwill of the Bolshevik government, since only then could it obtain the necessary trains, supplies and medical care to send the workers home.
What followed in the summer of 1918 was therefore a growing rapprochement between the Association and the Soviet regime. The Bolsheviks, for their part, were eager to cultivate a sympathetic organisation that could represent Chinese migrants in Russia. In June 1918, the Association obtained official recognition from the Soviets; three months later, it voiced support for the Lenin government as “the only government in the world by and for the people”. By December it had changed its name to the Association of Chinese Diaspora Workers in Russia – with new regulations that excluded merchants from its ranks – and begun publishing its own newspaper, Datong bao, which was distributed by the Red Army. Finally, in March 1919, its leaders participated in the First Comintern Congress as the “Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party”, formed for the purposes of the event.
Yet one doubts how “Bolshevised” the Association had become. It retained its longstanding chairman, Liu Zerong, whose political views were broadly social-democratic; he never became a party member, joined the Red Army, or even participated in the early Chinese Communist Party after his return in 1920. In its appeals for repatriation, the Association constantly underscored how Chinese workers were suffering in Soviet Russia. There is also little indication that returning wartime workers contributed to the formation of the CCP; few are to be found among the Party leadership. Domestic intellectuals, not wartime migrant labourers, spearheaded the communist movement in China. For all of Beijing’s defences, it was the spread of Bolshevism within its borders that proved most threatening.