Bruce A. Elleman. Diplomacy and Deception: The Secret History of Sino-Soviet Diplomatic Relations, 1917-1927. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. xvii + 322 pp. $80.95 (cloth), ISBN -7656-0142-7; $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7656-0142-1.
Reviewed by Clayton Black (Department of History, Washington College)
Published on H-Russia (April, 2000)
Moscow's Two Faces in China
In 1951 and 1952 a group of influential Americans known as the "China Lobby" -- congressmen, businessmen, journalists, and others -- contributed to Senator Joseph McCarthy's hunt for communist agents by calling for the exposure of those in the U.S. State Department responsible, by their way of thinking, for the "loss" of China. That China was not theirs to lose did not seem to occur to them , nor could they allow for the possibility that the Communists in China might have garnered a genuine mass following. Had the members of the "China Lobby" known of the kinds of details that Bruce A. Elleman has unearthed of the USSR's deception and subterfuge in China between 1919 and 1945, their suspicions that the revolution would not have occurred without the secret machinations and underground efforts of Moscow's agents would surely have been confirmed.
Elleman's main objective in this study is to reveal the treachery of Soviet diplomacy in China in the 1920s. Along the way he exonerates the other major powers, whose diplomacy appears here to be consistently even handed and well intentioned. He begins with a discussion of the Versailles Peace of 1919, which by most accounts was the point at which Woodrow Wilson betrayed his own philosophy of self-determination by handing the Shandong peninsula, once held by Germany, over to Japan instead of insisting that it go directly to China. This "betrayal" of the principle of China's territorial integrity provided the spark for the May Fourth movement, a series of demonstrations that initiated an era of intellectual upheaval, nationalism, and anti-Westernism in China. Elleman argues that Wilson had no choice, according to the standards of international diplomacy, but to agree to Japan's takeover, for the government in Beijing had already secretly negotiated the terms of Japanese occupation of Shandong. Wilson was therefore only able to make the best of an unfortunate situation by convincing the Japanese to agree to return Shandong to China after control of it was first transferred from Germany to Japan.
That it was the Chinese government itself that betrayed the country did not reach the popular press. Instead, the Western imperialist powers and Japan were singled out for the hostility of the Chinese crowd, a circumstance that the Soviet government in Russia was only too happy to use to its advantage. In the summer of 1919, the Soviets issued the Karakhan Manifesto, a decree that proclaimed with great fanfare Russia's unilateral renunciation of unequal treaties, territorial concessions, extraterrritoriality, and its share of the Boxer indemnity, as well as the return of the Chinese Eastern Railway (p. 24).
The manifesto was a propaganda coup, for it firmly established the Soviet government's reputation as the defender of the rights of the downtrodden in a world of predatory powers. Historians, too, have generally accepted the document at face value. The public did not see, however, the maneuvering behind closed doors to restore (and expand on) all of the concessions and extraterritorial privileges that the tsarist government had won for itself prior to 1915. In fact, the Soviets printed two versions of the Karakhan Manifesto and, in a practice that was to become all too common in the years to follow, used both depending on the needs of the moment. For its part, the Beijing government found it expedient not to expose Soviet manipulation of the Karakhan Manifesto because the public document allowed China's leaders to pressure the other powers to follow Moscow's lead.
Despite public pronouncements of unilateral good will, the Soviets, according to Elleman, followed a clear line of deceit to maintain Russia's control of the Chinese-Eastern Railway and dominate Outer Mongolia. In general, Elleman sees far more continuity than difference between the diplomacy of the Bolsheviks and that of the tsarist government. The Russian empire's interests in China, including the over one thousand miles of railroad tracks on 250,000 acres with a value of more than 500 million gold rubles, were greater than those of any other imperialist power, and Elleman reminds us that the U.S. Open Door Policy was largely prompted by fears of Russian expansion into China's north (pp. 28, 115).
Outer Mongolia had been subject to Chinese control for hundreds of years, but between 1911 and 1915 the tsarist government worked to gain trade privileges and limit China's rights in the territory (p. 86). Negotiations finally culminated in the 1915 treaty that established China's suzerainty over the land in exchange for recognition of Outer Mongolia's autonomy, opening the way to greater Russian involvement and, eventually, to occupation by Red troops during the civil war. Russia also enjoyed the largest share of the Boxer Indemnity, accounting for 28.97 percent of the obligation (p. 144). In every instance the Soviet government presented itself to the world as the champion of righteous renunciation of unequal relations; and in every instance, according to Elleman, the actual, secret conduct of Soviet diplomacy was geared toward extending rather than relinquishing Russian control.
But to what end did the Bolsheviks consistently renege on their promises to China? Elleman argues that the Soviets were simply subject to the same imperialist impulses as their predecessors --expansion was their goal. Elleman gives no indication of other possible motives. He does make passing mention of the notion of "capitalist encirclement" (p. 59), but not enough to support the possibility that the Soviet leadership might genuinely have believed its own rhetoric. Indeed, Elleman portrays a Sino-Soviet relationship that is entirely Machiavellian -- ideology was at best a ruse for winning popular support. He does not seem to take seriously that the Soviet government felt itself in a particularly vulnerable position well into the 1920s, nor does he appreciate the hostility of the Western powers to the Soviet regime.
Communist revolution in Europe (a goal the Bolsheviks never hid) was clearly not imminent by the mid-1920s, and it should come as no surprise that the Soviet government sought to secure what advantages it had in China by hook or by crook. As far as Soviet leaders were concerned, they were facing powerful opponents. None of this exonerates Soviet diplomacy in China -- Elleman does demonstrate the blatant hypocrisy of its official pronouncements. It only suggests that Elleman appears unwilling to consider Soviet motives in any but the most doctrinaire terms. In this story the Russians are the clear "bad guys" with the basest of motives.
By contrast, China's statesmen appear as remarkably credulous diplomats who would have been best advised to follow the counsel of the United States or Great Britain. Time after time the Chinese --whether in Canton, Beijing, or Mukden -- took the Russians at their word and thus ended up playing into the hands of their predatory neighbor. Elleman paints a sympathetic portrait of Wellington Koo (in contrast to the treacherous Lev Karakhan), but we see him badgered (or tricked) into accepting the amputation of Mongolia and agreeing to Soviet reclamation of the Russian legation in Beijing, all consular territories, and all property held by Russians in China (except that held by the White emigres).
The only obvious benefit to China from its negotiations was the ability to use Soviet propaganda as a lever against the Western unequal treaties. And if Western relations with China were as benign as Elleman would have them, why was Beijing willing to accept such unfavorable terms from Russia purely for the propaganda value of the Karakhan Manifesto? The secret of Karakhan's success, according to Elleman, was Sun Yat-sen, who was willing to accept Soviet demands for control of the CER and Outer Mongolia for the international prestige that recognition gave his government in Canton. Sun's alliance with Moscow was a constant threat to the rulers in Beijing, who saw that Sun could easily sway popular opinion against them.
The success of Soviet diplomacy suggests the one thing that seems curiously understated in this study -- the weakness of China's republican government. A weak Chinese government allowed Moscow to press its advantages, but it also carried the inherent risk that China might fall under the sway of powers hostile to the USSR -- a risk Soviet leaders could not have greeted warmly. The threat was real, as Elleman indicates in his section on the Anglo-Russian proxy war between 1925 and 1927. Elleman's uniform treatment of Moscow's foreign policy might be explained by the fact that, despite ample access to Chinese archives, he did not have similar access to Soviet archives. He was able to use Russian-language sources in Chinese diplomatic records, but such documents are understandably reticent about Soviet motives. As a result, his explanations are largely speculative and, unfortunately, dismissive of ideology.
To his credit, Elleman is one of the few scholars capable of working comfortably in Chinese and Russian, and future historians will be indebted to him for uncovering the extent of Soviet duplicity in China in the 1920s. Prodigious effort went into the preparation of this book, including work in archives and libraries in Taiwan, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, and no historian of Sino-Soviet relations can afford to ignore it. A complete understanding of Soviet behavior, however, will have to await a historian who can look with greater subtlety at the archives in Moscow.
. See James C. Thompson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley, and John Curtis Perry, Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia (New York, 1981): 217-34.
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