Chinese Railway Incident

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The year 1929 found the Soviet Union’s fortunes in the Far East at a low ebb. Two years earlier, the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek had turned against and crushed their erstwhile allies, the Chinese Communists, and severed diplomatic relations with Moscow. Consolidating their position as claimants to rule China, the Kuomintang sought to extend their authority to Manchuria, presenting a real threat to Soviet interests in the region.

The Soviet presence in Manchuria derived from the Chinese Eastern Railroad (CER), the ownership of which had passed into Soviet hands with the overthrow of the tsarist government and the October Revolution. Recognition of the Soviet Union’s title to the railroad had been secured via treaties in 1924 with both the Chinese government in Peking and the government of the warlord, Chang Tso-lin, in Mukden. Yet, the existence of a substantial “White” Russian community in the Manchurian city of Harbin, the activities of Soviet consular officials and commercial agents, and the fact that as of 1929, 75 per cent of the railroad’s employees were Russians who held all the controlling posts constituted an affront to the Kuomintang government in Nanking and its claim to represent Chinese sovereignty.

On May 27, 1929 the Chinese carried out raids on Soviet consulates along various points on the railroad. Some eighty Soviet citizens, officials of the consular service and the railroad, were arrested and documents were seized. Despite a formal protest lodged by Moscow, further raids were carried out which, by July, gave the Chinese total control of the CER and its subsidiary services. Having amassed warplanes and tanks, the Red Army under General V. K. Bliukher invaded northern Manchuria in September. By the end of November, the Red Army had routed the Chinese forces, and effectively restored the status quo ante.

The “Chinese Eastern Railroad incident” of 1929 was overshadowed by the onset of the Great Turn towards the full-scale collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union, and the Japanese invasion of Manchuria two years later. It did, however, inspire US Secretary of State Harold Stimson to invoke the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to prevent war, the main result of which was a flurry of angry exchanges between Washington and Moscow. In 1933 the Soviet government initiated discussions with the Japanese for the sale of the no-longer profitable CER to the puppet state of Manchukuo. An agreement was finally signed in March 1935.

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