The 1917 revolutions and Civil War were a time of unprecedented upheaval for the Chinese diaspora in Russia, paralleled perhaps only by the massacre at Blagoveshchensk during the Boxer Rebellion. Wartime workers were stranded in European Russia, while in Siberia and the Russian Far East migrants became collateral damage in the fighting between Reds, Whites and Allied interventionists. When White leaders came to power in autumn 1918, the Chinese community became a target for robbery and murder in the ensuing atamanshchina.
As far as they were able, Chinese diplomats, border officials and civic organisations attempted to keep track of the community’s losses. This was a tall order. By 1917, China had only been permitted to establish consulates in Vladivostok and Irkutsk, leaving vast swathes of the diaspora without easy access to consular representation. Civic actors – mainly chambers of commerce in the Russian Far East, or Chinese-sponsorsed aqsaqals in Semirech’e – stepped in to fill the gap, although their reach among non-mercantile segments of the diaspora could be limited. Border officials sometimes commissioned their own investigations, although this depended on personal initiative. Despite all these constraints, however, the accounts produced offer a snapshot into the Chinese community, as the following report shows.
Since the beginning of the troubles in Russia, there has been more than a year of disorder. The direct and indirect losses experienced by Chinese migrants across the whole of Siberia, both during and after the European War, are indeed immense. A representative was dispatched to Chita and Irkutsk to conduct a thorough investigation. Now, based on the enquiry, an account of the circumstances and sum of the losses to Chinese migrants in these areas has been prepared and submitted. It also states that the facts of the report are in accordance with the records maintained by local commercial organisations and consulates. My office has reviewed this and concurs. The various instances in the account where the sums are unknown, or which are still awaiting investigation, will be reported on separately once they have been clarified. Apart from that, the original account is copied here for Your Ministry’s reference and implementation.
What followed was a lengthy account of losses to individual migrants in Chita and Irkutsk. Selections from the Chita report are reproduced here. Taking in robberies and two murders from when the city was still under Red rule, it depicts a community of traders, peddlers and farmers, with the former dealing in consumer goods such as cloth, sugar, meat and tobacco. The sums involved were also much smaller than those in Irkutsk, where the losses often ran into thousands of pre-depreciation rubles.
Record of the investigation into Chinese migrant losses in Chita
An account of the losses to Chinese migrants in Chita in 1918 due to the disorder in Russia, including the number of items and sums involved, is hereby presented for your reference.
Wang Haoxiang was on the No. 3 train at Chita main station when, on 7 January, Red soldiers robbed him of ten bolts of calico, each worth 200 rubles. Total 2,000 rubles.
Shi Caoyang was at the Chita vegetable plots when, on 4 February, Red soldiers robbed him of a shotgun, value 120 rubles; a pair of boots, value 80 rubles; a padded jacket, value 50 rubles; 3 rubles 7 kopeks in copper coins; 10 jin of good-quality tin, value 120 rubles; a mirror, value 3 rubles; a purse, value 5 rubles, containing 2 rubles 70 kopeks and a bottle of medicine, value 1 ruble 50 kopeks. Total 385 rubles 90 kopeks.
Feng Youqian, Zhang Chunyong, He Sheng, Sun Rongmao, Huang Yulin and Liu Qingguo were all six trading at the Chita bazaar when, on 27 February, they were robbed by the Reds of socks and other goods worth 1,800 rubles.
Guo Yide and Chen Yaoxin came to report that on 13 March, Zhang Qingtang was beaten to death by Russians in the vegetable plot of the small village west of Chita.
Wang Yuzong was on Selenginskaia ulitsa, Chita when, on 17 April, he was robbed by a Russian of a watch, value 80 rubles, as well as 860 rubles in cash. Total 940 rubles.
Feng Chungui sold dough balls at the Chita main station for a living. On 18 June, an Austrian soldier in a Red unit purchased some from him. He followed the soldier to the front of the train to ask for the money, whereupon the Austrian beat him to death with a rifle. This matter was previously brought to the Vladivostok consulate, with Wang Shengsan as witness.
Zhang Cao was in a small shop on Mariinskaia ulitsa when, at 9pm on 17 August, he was robbed by Whites of a watch, value 100 rubles, a passport, a zhaoren[?] wallet containing 200 rubles. Total 300 rubles.
Xing Yinqian was in the main Chita bazaar when, on 25 August, he was robbed by the Reds of 22 jin of lump sugar, at 4.5 rubles per jin value 99 rubles; 60 jin of refined[?] sugar, at 4 rubles per jin value 240 rubles; 14.5 jin of tea leaves, at 20 rubles per jin value 290 rubles. Total 629 rubles.
Cheng Xixian, who runs a small shop at the Chita main station, was on 25 August robbed by the Reds of 5,000 ciagrettes, at 40 rubles [per thousand] value 200 rubles; 22 jin of mubaxie[?] sugar, at 5 yuan per jin value 110 rubles; 2 jin of candles, value 10 rubles. Total 320 rubles.
Wang Zonglai, who ran a laundry on Ussuriiskaia ulitsa, on 25 August had his shop broken into by the Reds, who took 3,500 rubles.
Xiao Chen, a trader in Chita, was on 13 May robbed by the Reds of 10 jin of tobacco, 2,150 shengeliezi[?] cigarettes and one pud of sausages.
Wang Xiewen, a trader on Ussuriiskaia ulitsa, was on 13 April robbed by the Reds of three bags of lump sugar, value 600 rubles.Letter from Bao Guiqing, 18 March 1919 (sent 11 March). Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, pp. 97-100.
Such reports were compiled as proof of the community’s tribulations, as well as to provide grounds for future compensation. In so doing, the Chinese authorities adopted an approach that had itself been applied to China in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion: imposing a penalty on a foreign government for damages inflicted on one’s diaspora. The Boxer Indemnity of 1901 obliged China to pay 450 customs taels – equivalent to £67 million – for violence committed towards foreign residents, such as the murder of Christian missionaries and siege of the Beijing legations, as well as for the destruction of foreign-owned property. Even as the Beijing government sought to shake off Russia’s share of the Indemnity, therefore, Chinese officials could claim to be using international best-practice in seeking redress for migrant losses.
Yet there is something quixotic about these accounts. Republican China, anxious to gain legitimacy among the Great Powers, continued to pay the Indemnity incurred by the Qing government. But Soviet Russia, whose representatives perpetrated most of the robberies listed in the Chita report, was bound by no such scruple and had repudiated the imposition of indemnities tout court. Even a White government as eager to secure international recognition as Kolchak’s might balk at compensation. Without a recognised Russian state willing to take up the financial burden – and without the clout to enforce compliance – reports such as this became a dead letter.