A Red Conference in Shanghai?

In a previous post, we looked at how British and Russian diplomats warned Beijing as early as January 1918 about Bolshevik plans to send provocateurs to China. The Foreign Ministry immediately alerted the governors of the Sino-Russian border provinces, as well as officials in regions with a sizeable foreign presence. However, the Soviet government was at the time more focused on the prospects of a revolution in Europe and on fending off a German offensive. Apart from a few anti-imperial promises directed unofficially to the Chinese embassy, the Bolsheviks had no active policy towards China in those early days.

Things had changed radically by the early months of 1919. The hoped-for German revolution culminated in a social democratic government and pitched battles between left- and right-wing militias. In Hungary, Bela Kun was poised on the brink of a coup. Communists in Poland and Ukraine faced an uncertain future as war broke out with Soviet Russia. Relations between communists in European Russia and those in the former imperial periphery had to be clarified. And in Paris, the Great Powers were assembling to redefine the world order. Even in the midst of the Russian Civil War, the international communist movement was in need of strategic direction and ideological guidance – with Lenin’s government providing the leadership.

Delegates at the First Comintern Congress, 1919. Liu Zerong is the third man to the left of the flag. Source.

Accordingly, on 2-6 March 1919, a new, Third International was inaugurated in Moscow. While its focus was still chiefly on the communist parties in Western Europe and America, it included two Chinese delegates: Liu Zerong (alias Liu Shaozhou in Mandarin or Lau Siu-zao in Cantonese), whom we have already encountered as chairman of the Association of Chinese Diaspora in Russia, and fellow Association leader Zhang Yongkui. Both men represented the Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party, a group formed solely for the Congress; Liu’s short speech was not even included in the official minutes. Yet the revival of the International – and the participation of Chinese and Korean representatives – triggered another flurry of concern in Beijing, this time of a Bolshevik meeting in Shanghai.


According to a confidential message from the diplomatic corps, the Russian Reds will hold a meeting on the 22nd in Shanghai. Red leaders from Moscow and Siberia will all be present. Topics to be discussed: 1. To cause disorder in Siberia this spring; 2. Various activities in China, Japan, as well as Europe and America; 3. Alliances with the German and Polish Reds. Also, according to the reports, this information is accurate and reliable. This should be swiftly investigated and stopped; wire a reply.

Telegram to the Shanghai defence commissioner and envoy, 21 March 1919. Zhong-E Guanxi Shiliao: E Zhengbian yu Yiban Jiaoshe (2), Minguo Liunian zhi Banian, p. 112.

Such warnings capped off several months of what seemed like an escalating threat, first from provocateurs in Xinjiang and then among returning Chinese workers. This time, however, the threat had reached the Chinese heartland. On 26 March, Russian ambassador Kudashev informed the Foreign Ministry that the Reds were agitating in Beijing and Tianjin as well as Shanghai. Kudashev recommended more stringent measures, including the inspection of hotel registers. These were echoed by the Shanghai authorities.

Mao Zedong (seventh from left) in Shanghai in 1920, with members of the New Citizens’ Association (Xinmin xuehui). According to biographers, Mao’s first visit to Shanghai was in March 1919, to see off students going to France for the work-study movement. Source.



Your Ministry’s telegram of the 21st received and read on the 22nd. An investigation was ordered; there has indeed been news that the Russian Reds are sending party members to Shanghai in groups, with the aim of colluding with Chinese and Japanese to act in concert. It is said that each group comprises four people and two groups have already set out, but not yet reached Shanghai. This matter is crucial and must be strictly prohibited. The British police station is also paying close attention now and sent a representative to my office yesterday to discuss this. It was agreed to deal with this jointly. All Russians now residing in the concessions and Chinese sector will be inspected by the [British] station and [Chinese] police department respectively, as a suitable precaution. Regarding Russians coming from outside, their passports will be checked and they will be closely questioned to prevent the Reds from slipping in. As for the method of implementation, all ships coming to Shanghai from Dalian and Vladivostok will be inspected by the station. My office will deploy military police which, together with police officers, will be stationed at and inspect the Shanghai-Nanjing train stations. We have instructed that this be implemented in the next few days.

However, when taking trains to the interior, the Reds must pass through the Chinese Eastern Railway. It is urgently necessary to inform the stations on that line that, when Russians purchase tickets, their passports should be inspected first and they should be closely questioned on their backgrounds and reasons for travel. If they have no passports or behave suspiciously, the tickets must not be sold, in order to prevent their journey. Other railways such as the Peking-Mukden, Tianjin-Pukou, Qingdao-Jinan and Peking-Hankow should also adopt such measures, in the interests of thoroughness. Please convey this quickly to the Communications Ministry, so that it may wire the railway bureaux to implement them. I would also be very grateful for a response. Also, I have just received the State Council’s telegram of the 18th on the Reds repatriating Chinese workers to cause disorder. Both the military and police have been instructed to pay attention to this, gather information and take precautions.

Telegram from Shanghai defence commissioner Lu Yongxiang, 1 April 1919. Ibid., pp. 133-134.
Members of the Chinese Socialist Youth League’s Foreign Languages Study Association in Shanghai, 1920. The League’s founder, Yu Xiusong, is in the middle of the back row. Source.

But was there indeed such a meeting in the works? The Bolsheviks certainly maintained an underground network in Harbin, but with the Civil War still raging it is doubtful that a systematic effort to send delegates to the Chinese heartland existed as early as March 1919. According to Ishikawa Yoshihiro, although a small number of radical socialists were active in Shanghai in 1918-1919, the first Bolshevik agents – A.S. Potapov and, most notably, G.N. Voitinskii – only arrived in China from late 1919 onwards. Neither did the Chinese Socialist Workers’ Party led by Liu and Zhang send representatives to China, despite its presence at the Comintern Congress. Finally, Liu Jianyi cites British records showing that four Russian provocateurs arrived in Shanghai in April 1919, but it seems that no formal conference occurred. Only two of the four became active propagandists, and then only after Voitinskii’s arrival.

In fact, it was Chinese intellectuals, not Russian provocateurs, whom the authorities had to fear. Li Dazhao, the “Father of Chinese Marxism”, had already written about the Victory of Bolshevism in November 1918; beginning in February 1919, Marxist ideas were being translated and disseminated in the Beijing newspaper Chenbao. The ongoing work-study movement, of which Shanghai was a centre, also became a seedbed for future Chinese communists. This nascent interest in Marxism would soar after the May 4th movement, and Potapov and Voitinskii would find an audience already receptive to Bolshevik ideas.

One thought on “A Red Conference in Shanghai?

  1. Pingback: A Mission to Moscow? – Shots Across the Amur 黑龍江對岸的槍聲

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