The Story So Far

The history of Sino-Russian engagement is a long and varied one. An ever-growing corpus is devoted to the subject and any brief, page-long account cannot hope to do justice to this body of work.

However, several key issues are critical to this period, which can roughly be summarised as follows.

Where is the Sino-Russian frontier?

The border itself, covering several thousand miles from Inner Asia to the Pacific Ocean, was and is one of the longest in the world. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, key frontier territories included Turkestan, Transbaikal, the Amur region and the Maritime Province on the Russian side, and Xinjiang, Mongolia, Heilongjiang and Jilin on the Chinese. After the 1890s, when Russia gained a territorial concession in Manchuria, the concession zone could also be considered a “frontier”, including the city of Harbin and its Chinese-controlled counterpart, Binjiang.

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The border region, showing territories ceded to Russia. Source

Imperialism and its Discontents

Imperial Russia’s eastward expansion into Siberia and beyond began as early as the 16th Century, but had been checked in 1685 by a Qing victory at Albazin. The Sino-Russian frontier was itself relatively undergoverned and underdeveloped. Settlement by Russians from the tsar’s European territories took place only on a small scale. On the Chinese side, migration across the Willow Palisade into Manchuria – the Qing patrimony – was officially proscribed.

By the 19th Century, however, international competition for colonial possessions – and the accompanying status of Great Power – intensified. New technological and administrative capabilities also allowed imperial metropoles to extend their reach more effectively into far-flung territories. The Russian Empire moved to stake its claim in the Far East just as Qing China fell victim to internal revolt, poor governance, institutional stagnation and technological inadequecy.

China’s defeat in the First Opium War (1839-1842) was the harbinger of its decline. It was followed by a series of “unequal treaties”, in which the Qing were compelled to grant concessions to other imperial powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Control over certain territories was ceded to these foreign powers. Citizens of these powers were not subject to Chinese law (“extraterritoriality”). When China lost in its military engagements against these powers, it was obliged to pay hefty reparations, adding to Beijing’s ongoing financial crisis. The treaties specific to Russia were:

1858 Treaty of Aigun. Established the Amur River as the Sino-Russian border, effectively recognising Russian sovereignty over all land north of that river.

1860 Treaty of Peking. Russia gains territories east of the Ussuri River.

1881 Treaty of St Petersburg. Delimited the Sino-Russian border in the Ili region. This was not a Chinese defeat per se, but had come after Russian troops had occupied Ili during an uprising.

1896 “Secret Treaty”. Allowed for the construction of the China Eastern Railway through Manchuria, as well as the establishment of a Russian-controlled railway zone surrounding the line. The China Eastern Railway Company was nominally a joint Sino-Russian concern, but effective control was exercised by Russian officials and shored up by the Russo-Asiatic Bank (known in Chinese as 道勝銀行, Daosheng Bank).

1901 Boxer Protocol. Following the failure of the anti-foreign Boxer Uprising in 1900, the Qing government was obliged to pay an indemnity of 450 million taels of silver to the western imperial powers and Japan. Russia received the largest share of this indemnity.

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Chinese leaders of the Beiyang fleet surrender to the Japanese, 1895. Source

In fact, Russia was not the only imperial competitor in this frontier region. Japan’s rapid modernisation drive had placed it among the ranks of imperial powers by the beginning of the 20th Century. Like Russia, Japan also took part in the “scramble for China”. After the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895, Japan gained control of Korea; then, after the 1905-1906 Russo-Japanese War, of Southern Manchuria.

These indemnities and concessions were part of China’s “century of humiliation”, in which foreign imperial powers chipped away at Chinese sovereignty. They starkly demonstrated China’s weakness in the new global landscape and inspired a widespread search for a way to reinvigorate the country. Decades of reform, however, did not result in the national revival that many hoped for. The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 was followed by a prolonged period of political instability as regional authorities – warlords with their own military forces – became increasingly independent of the Beijing government and waged destructive civil wars. Beijing itself was in dire financial straits, riddled by official corruption and saddled with debt.

Still, many in China continued to search for a solution, some more successfully than others. Just as Russia began settling its Far Eastern territories in earnest, China ceased to prohibit emigration to Manchuria in the late 19th Century. The result was a surge of migrants into Manchuria (known as 闖關東, “storming Guandong”) itself, as well as across the border into Russian territory. Chinese traders set up shop in the new urban centres of the Russian Far East, Chinese miners set to work in the Amur’s gold mines, Chinese workers laboured on the Trans-Siberian, Chinese farmers planted vegetable gardens and opium. They formed a significant minority in the Russian Far East – up to a fifth of the population of Vladivostok was Chinese – with their own migrant organisations and self-help groups.

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Chinese in Vladivostok. Source

The Russian responded by sounding the alarm on a new “Yellow Peril”, as the sheer number of Chinese migrants threatened to unseat Russians from their territorial gains. A series of laws prohibiting Chinese labour or imposing discriminatory fees on Chinese migrants were instituted. It added to the sense of “victimhood” that many Chinese felt at the hands of Russia.

Up until the Russian Revolutions of 1917, China continued to search for a way to restore its rights. In 1916, hoping to recover Germany’s colony in Shandong, the Beijing Government allowed the wartime Allies to recruit Chinese workers as auxiliary labour in World War One – at least 100,000 were employed by the Russian Army. Officials of the Heilongjiang provincial authorities pressed the Russians to allow China to sail steamships on the Amur River, trying to reverse a de facto ban that had existed since the 1858 Aigun Treaty. And on the ground, Chinese merchants and diplomats wrote of how China needed to expand its commerce in Russia, for fear of losing the imminent “trade war” (商戰), especially against Japan. The Sino-Russian frontier was a three-cornered battleground in which China felt itself to be at a disadvantage. Both the March and November revolutions had to contend with this legacy.

A patriotic propaganda poster showing the Chinese people oppressed by warlords and imperialism, mid-1920s
A 1925 poster showing warlords and imperialists throttling patriotic Chinese. Source

What Does it Mean to be Modern?

China’s push for “national revival” meant more than advancing its military, diplomatic or economic interests. It also involved taking on the intellectual trappings of a “modern” nation, a badge of membership in the club of Great Powers. To this end, certain ideas associated with the “civilised” West were adopted, at least partially, and coexisted with Confucian, Buddhist or folk concepts.

For some, this meant redefining the role of women and their place in society. Others looked to Social Darwinism, seeing the imperial conflict between Russia and China as another manifestation of a “race war”. Yet others wished to join the Wilsonian world order by becoming “humanitarians”, or took up the mantle of “scientific” Marxism or anarchist mutual aid. Often, these were linked to the wider issue of restoring China, by seeking ways to improve its international standing or solutions to its political crises.

The 1917 revolutions inspired great interest in Marxism among Chinese intellectuals, especially after the 1919 Paris Peace Conference failed to return Germany’s concessions and hence, to reward China for its assistance in World War One. When the liberal democracies of the West seemed to have “betrayed” China, some Chinese turned to socialist Russia instead. Still, Marxism was not the only idea to capture the Chinese imagination after 1917. The turmoil of revolution and the Russian Civil War brought to light other compelling ideas in China’s syncretic intellectual playbook. Throughout the sources, signs of China’s struggle to redefine itself as a “modern” nation can be seen as it tried to make sense of its neighbour’s upheavals.

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Li Hua, Zhengzha (Struggle), 1946. Source
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Ilya Repin, Barge Haulers on the Volga, 1870-1873. Source