Book Review: Unknown Tale of Chinese in WWI

The role of Chinese laborers employed by Britain and France on the Western Front in the First World War has recently received belated attention. Although they faced tough times, all but about 2,000 of the 140,000 recruited survived and most returned to China with money in their pockets.

Those who did not survive were mostly buried properly, notably in the British-administered cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer in northern France which is well maintained and now much visited by Chinese and others.

But the tale of the greater number of laborers recruited by Russia has received very little attention even though their number was greater and their fate much worse. So this slim volume is a valuable contribution to knowledge of events which for different reasons were ignored, covered up or distorted by factors ranging from the chaos of war and revolution to the vagaries of the Sino-Soviet relationship.

In total about 200,000 Chinese were recruited by Imperial Russia, mostly from Manchurian areas across the border. Chinese had worked in Russia before the war but almost all in the Far East. The war saw Russia’s armies suffer huge numbers of casualties as they were unable to compete with smaller but better armed and organized German and Austrian forces on its western frontier.

Hundreds of thousands more were taken prisoner. So soon even huge and populous Russia faced a serious labour shortage at a time when it not only needed to rebuild its armies but increase its armaments output and make its infrastructure better able to supply its armies.

But recruitment of Chinese to be brought to western Russia where the need was most urgent did not start in earnest till 1916. An agreement reached between China and Russia provided for recruitment in batches of 1,000 men and each such contract stated the place and nature of the work, the conditions and pay – which was supposed to be not less than that of Russian workers but varied according to skill levels.

They were not to be directly involved in war work and provided with winter clothing and appropriate food – rice, noodles etc. So tens of thousands were recruited, the largest number by a Changchung (Jilin) based company owned by Chinese and Russian officials with several offices in the northeast and in Shandong. Recruits mostly took the train from Harbin to western Russia.

In the event however the conditions supposed to protect the workers largely went unfulfilled as a result of the attitudes of employers, local conditions, anti-Chinese sentiment and the generally low state of order in a Russia which was cracking up under the impact of its war losses. The Chinese found themselves doing some of the hardest jobs, such as building a railway from St Petersburg to Murmansk, the ice-free port in the far north in the middle of winter.

Others worked in factories and in cutting forests. Unlike in the west where Chinese workers were concentrated and under quasi-military organizations, in Russia they were more scattered, some working in Ukraine and Belarus, others in Baku in Azerbaijan, others yet in mines in the Ural mountains – where they went on strike and were suppressed with loss of life.

Even under the best of circumstances, life for many would have been very difficult. But then the Imperial Russian state collapsed, the Tsar abdicated and, following brief period under the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky, Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power, after which there was a three year civil war.

In this chaos the Chinese simply had to try to survive as best they could and wherever they could find work and food. Many joined the Red Army. Estimates put those who joined at 50,000, a huge number given the circumstances and driven partly by the need for work and food and partly by a belief that the Bolsheviks represented the interests of the downtrodden such as themselves.

One, Ren Fuchen, formed a unit of Chinese soldiers under Russian command of which he himself was political commissar. Named the Red Eagle battalion, it was caught by surprise and wiped out. Another unit, a Chinese regiment which was active in fighting in the Ukraine, was commanded by Iona Yakir, a Jew from Bessarabia (now mostly in Moldova) who went on to become a leading figure in the post-civil war Red Army – but was executed in Stalin’s great 1937 purge.

Tens of thousands survived the civil war, whether or not in the Red Army, and many gradually made their way back to China. But a 1926 census showed there were still 100,000 Chinese in the Soviet Union, 70 percent in the Far East but 30,000 scattered elsewhere. Many were, it assumed, happy to stay where they had found work. But the 1930s saw efforts by Stalin to expel many of them and to replace them in the Far East with Russians, either encouraged to go there by government developments projects or sent into exile for political reasons, and nationalities such expelled from their homelands in southern Russia and the Caucasus. By 1940 the Far East was almost cleansed of Chinese and would remain so until the collapse of the Soviet Union in1991.

Many, many thousands of the workers who had gone to Imperial Russia in high hopes of earning a living and saving cash never made it home to China. Russia remains scattered with the bones of thousands of Chinese, some in unmarked graves, some with headstones. But they remain a largely forgotten force with no cemetery or even memorial to call their own. And despite their contribution to the Red Army, recollection of their fate is not in the interests of Sino-Russian rapport.