Olga Zalesskaya – Chinese migrants in the Soviet Far East during industrialization

SUMMARY: The important component of the Far East in the period of industrialization were Chinese migrants. In the Soviet Far East there was a considerable amount of the Chinese population constantly. In the article the author considers the ways and the methods of attraction of Chinese labor into the Soviet Far East, analyzes the distribution of Chinese workers in various industries, characterizes the conditions of their life and work in the Soviet territory.


In the late 1920s, the priority goal of the Soviet leadership was to build up the economic and military power of the state at the highest possible pace. It should be achieved by the accelerated development of socialist industry, the transformation of industry into the main branch of the national economy. Non-economic, command and control measures were chosen to mobilize the resources available in the country.

In the Far East of the USSR began the accelerated development of industry, taking into account the specifics of the Far East region. Measures for the modernization of the Far Eastern industry was developed on the basis of the resolutions of the XIV and the XVI party Congress, decisions of the XVII party conference, the Bureau of the Far Eastern regional Committee (August-October, 1927) about “five-year plan of national economy in the Far East” and decree of the Communist Party Central Committee of 5 December 1929 about “Reorganization of the management of industry.”

Major efforts were focused on the reconstruction of coal, forestry, fishing and gold mining industries as currency and export directions of development in the national economy. A significant amount of money was invested to these industries, and the construction of large enterprises began.

The practice of combining state-owned enterprises into trusts, which was used by the far Eastern Bureau during the restoration period, continued. Dalles, Dalugol, Dalzoloto and other trusts became the main manufacturer in the system of industrial management and industrial-branch functioning.

There were made changes in the administrative zoning for further industrial development of the region. On October 1, 1930, the district division was abolished (except for Kamchatka and Sakhalin districts). The administrative regions were subordinated to the Far Eastern region (far Eastern Federal district) with the center in Khabarovsk. Part of the territory of the Far Eastern Region (FER) – Chita and Sretensky districts were transferred to the East Siberian region according to the decree of All-Russian Central Executive Committee (ARCEC) of 30 July 1930. All the rights and duties that previously belonged to the district authorities passed to the district apparatus.

Amur, Primorsky, Kamchatka, Sakhalin region, lower Amur, Koryak, Chukchi and Okhotsk-Evenk national districts, Birobidzhan, lower Tambov (Komsomolskiy), Suburban (Vyazemsky) areas and Khabarovsk were separated in independent units according to the decree of ARCEC and Council of People’s Commissars (CPC) of Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) of 20 October 1932. There were formed Regional Executive Committees of Soviets, which were directly subordinate to the Dalkrayispolkom.

Such administrative changes should have contributed to the more successful implementation of the industrialization policy. There was a lack of labor for an accelerated socialist modernization in the region. Despite the measures taken by the state to resettle the population from the European regions of the country to the Far East, the region needed more workers in various industries. Under these circumstances, the practice of attracting Chinese labor to the Soviet Far East was continued.

Chinese labor in the gold industry was still required. In 1927, the production programs of gold mining have increased but the possibilities of the local labor market were still very limited. Because of the lack of the labor, at the meeting of the Council of Labor and Defense (CLD) on March 2, 1928, it was decided to import 2 thousand Chinese and Koreans for working in gold industry of the Far East. The CLD decided to “allow the importation for work in the same industry of 1500 prospectors from China and Korea.”

During May-June 1928, the Board of “Soyuzzoloto” managed to recruit 3065 Eastern workers, but there were cases of leaving entire parties of workers on the way to work. It was decided to abandon attempts to recruit workers in the domestic labor market and start recruiting inside China. The negotiations with the Chinese authorities in Heihe and Sicagou, were not successful. An attempt to illegally import workers from Harbin on steamboats with the mediation of a Chinese firm failed – all 5 working parties (530 people) were detained in Lahasusu, the employees of the firm were arrested and shot [6, P. 380].

The enterprises of other industries of the region also needed Chinese labor. In September 1928, the application for permission to import workers from China was submitted by such associations as Dalles (for 4000 people) and Dalugol (for 1500 people). Official permission to recruit 300 Chinese workers was given only to the Dalugol enterprise.

On October 19, 1928 Dalkrayispolkom agreed with the Bureau Dalkraykoma of Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) the framework for the recruitment of workers in Heihe using Blagoveshchensk . Recruitment had to be conducted by Chinese firms and to persuade them, the Soviet Union offered to transfer abroad the currency in amount of 50% of the gold produced by the Chinese. The Chinese firm “Butsundun” agreed to recruit for prospecting 30 thousand workers from China for payment from the Soviet enterprise. “Soyuzzoloto” decided to accept the 1st party of 8 thousand people to work in the mines of the Zeya district: in November 1928 – 2 thousand people, in December 1928 – 3 thousand people, in January 1929-3 thousand people.

In general, the delivery of the labor force was unsatisfactory. The main reason is the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese relations by the end of the 1920s. Chinese authorities prohibited for border Chinese firms to cooperate with Soviet enterprises in the matter of recruitment . The Soviet authorities at the regional level could not solve the problem of recruiting large numbers of Chinese workers. So, by September 1928, the Union “Soyuzzoloto” conducted preparatory work for the gold mining in the Chita district, and in the spring of 1929 planned to send about 9 thousand workers from China to the mine, but because of the deterioration of Soviet-Chinese relations, permission to import such a number of labor was not approved. The gold mining plan was not completed.

In 1929, the number of Eastern workers employed in the gold industry of the region was 29% (8768 people), and in 1930 – 22.25% (2332 people) of the total number of Easterners in all branches of the regional industry. The decrease of Eastern workers due to the unstable political situation in the region threatened to disrupt the production plans of a number of industries of FER, that’s why organisations and enterprises of the Far East has continued to search workers in China. The heads of Soviet enterprises recruit workers the following way: workers from China were transported in groups to the territory of the USSR legally (through labor exchanges or with the assistance of Chinese consuls) and semi-legally (with the assistance of “elders”-they received from 1.5 rubles to 3 rubles for each recruited worker – or Chinese firms in the Soviet Far East). Sometimes they payed  bribes to the relevant officials directly in northeast China.

Using a legal method of recruiting Chinese workers, their number was usually severely limited, so business leaders preferred to hire workers semi-legally. In October 1930 the head of the Far Eastern regional Department of labor noted in his memo: “All Eastern workers cross the border illegally. Only Chinese recruiters who were passed by the order of the commandant’s office of the border detachment in Poltava and Grodekovo have a legal transition.” Composition of workers wasn’t good and qualitative. Often the contractor hired honghuzis (members of organized gangs) and smugglers, giving them someone else’s paybooks and a ticket of membership in trade unions. It was mentioned in the note of the head of the regional Department of labor about one of the Chinese parties: “I was disappointed by recruited people – they were mostly artisans, hairdressers, tailors, etc., who found a job in China in order to cross the border legally and cheaply, and then practising their craft”.

The aggravated international situation in the Far East also demanded the accelerated socialist modernization and the creation of a military-industrial base in the Soviet Far East.

Japan began to embody its geopolitical model of the world, developed in the spirit of pan-asiatism aimed at gradually establishing its dominance in the Pacific ocean. Before the Washington conference, on March 3, 1920, the Japanese Ambassador in the United States K. Shidehara said that Japan has very special interests in the Far East, especially in China. Already then, they took up the subject of Manchuria. After the defeat of the Japanese interventionist troops and their expulsion from the Russian Far East, the rest of them during the 1920s were reformed and strengthened. Their commander, Lieutenant General Shigeru Honjo, was tasked with preparing troops to capture the entire territory of Manchuria to the South and North of the Sungari river. Using the name of the Directorate of the South Manchuria Railway, it was created an Intelligence Center, headed by a scout, Major General Kenji Doihara, nicknamed “Manchurian Lawrence”. This center prepared its agent network among Chinese militarists and Beijing government.

Starting the war, the Japanese leadership wanted to solve economic crisis problem. Their strategy was to expand markets closed to foreign competitors. This was the economic basis of the policy of “spheres of influence” and military expansion. If the principles of free and equal competition were adopted in China, Japan could lose its financial and economic privileges in this region (in terms of trade and investment). Therefore, influential groups of Japanese political and military figures advocated the expansion of influence in China until the complete taking over the territory.

In April 1927, Tanaka Giichi became the Prime Minister of Japan. He started with strong policy on China. Already in May 1927, Japanese troops were sent to Shandong, and in April and May 1928, the group of Japanese troops was strengthened. In violation of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Japan found out the intention to seize Northern China with the excuse that “Japan is responsible and has obligations to ensure peace and tranquility in Manchuria, that Manchuria is important for the defense of China”. Military spending was increased: in 1930, it was 29% of Japan’s budget. No power in the world has spent a third of its budget on military needs. Constantly increased imports of military equipment and weapons to Japan – in 1928, it was 39% of all imports of Japan, and by 1930 increases to 41%.

In the “Tanaka Memorandum”, published on July 25, 1927, it was noted that Japan intends to conquer all of China, all of Asia, and then achieve world domination. The conquest of China was planned to begin with the capture of Manchuria as a “buffer zone between Japan and Russia” and under the pretext of a “Communist threat” in the Far East. The invasion of Manchuria was intended to create in this territory a profitable continental bridgehead, a military and economic base against the Soviet Union. The governments of England, Germany, France and the United States didn’t interfere with this Japanese military strategy, because they were interested in the armed conflict between Japan and the USSR. On January 21, 1931 the Minister of foreign Affairs of Japan declared: “Manchuria is the key to the Far East… the Situation requires the annexation by Japan of the three northeastern provinces of China”.

On September 18, 1931, Japanese troops invaded Manchuria. The Nanjing government avoided direct confrontation with Japanese troops. In response to Zhang Xueliang’s telegram of November 5, 1931, requesting military assistance, Chiang Kai-shek referred to the fact that “the Chinese government has turned to the League of Nations and look forward to its influence on Japan to stop the aggression.” The threat of Communist power to Chiang Kai-shek in China seemed more serious than the loss of the North-Eastern provinces.

It’s important to note that in the 1920s the development of Manchuria was rapid, in the 1930s it became the most important agricultural region of China. In 1912-1931, the population of northeast China increased from 21.7 million to 29.1 million. Only in the first half of 1927, 630 thousand people moved from the inland areas to North-Eastern China. About 450 thousand people (71%) began to engage in agriculture. The activity of this region in export-import operations increased. In 1926-1931, the trade of North-Eastern China was about 30% of the total trade of the country.

Japan was preparing to colonize Manchuria and establish an occupation regime in the region. The industry of Manchuria got under Japanese control Japanese culture and ideology was setting everywhere. The number of Japanese schools increased, it was created special educational institutions to train administrative staff for the state apparatus. A lot of newspapers were published in Japanese language and people celebrated Japanese anniversaries. The economic situation of Japan in Manchuria was strengthened.

The occupation of Japan led to the deterioration of the socio-economic situation in the North-East of China. Japan created a system of prohibitive measures against the Chinese in the migration policy – if before the Japanese occupation, in 1926-1930, more than 4 million people moved to Manchuria, then in 1932-1936 the number of people fell to 2 million. [12, P. 25]. Chinese enterprises that could not withstand competition because of the increased import of Japanese goods, were closed. The working and living conditions of Chinese workers deteriorated, while the income of Japanese workers increased. Many industrial enterprises were destroyed, causing mass unemployment. Only in Harbin and Mukden more than 50 thousand people lost their jobs.

Japan’s migration policy was accompanied by violent measures against Chinese peasants-they were forced to sell their land at extremely low prices. Thus, in Yilan County (Prov. Heilongjiang) peasants were forced to sell land at a price of 1 yuan per Shang (0.67 hectares), although the real price of Shang barren land in this County was 41.4 yuan, fertile land – 121.4 yuan. There were cases when peasants who did not want to sell their land were killed. Forced to sell their lands for low price, the peasants went bankrupt (in 1939, for example, 11,340 peasant families had to leave their lands). They begged or joined the ranks of Chinese coolies [11, P. 37]. If in 1927 the number of people into agriculture was 76% of the total population of Manchuria, by 1936 this level was reduced to 16%. In 1932-1936, the number of people who left Manchuria also increased – it reaches 2 090 thousand people (in 1926-1930 – 1 870 thousand people).

One of the ways to survive and feed the family was to go to work in the Soviet Far East. The Far East industry still needed Chinese labor.

In the 1930s, Chinese workers were involved in a lot of industries of the region. In 1931, in Vladivostok district the number of Chinese was about 58.1% in mining industry, 37% in forestry, 39% in the chemical industry – and only 31% of the total number of workers in the district. But it did not mean that Chinese workers would come for a job every year. In the Artem mine about 58.2% of the Chinese worked more than 3 years. 39.8% of Chinese workers had experience more than 10 years, 6.7% – from 5 to 10 years, 21% – from 3 to 5 years. P. 28]. Despite encouraging the resettlement of the Russian population to the Far East from the central, southern and western regions of Russia, in many industries Chinese workers were still needed. In 1932, there were 57,711 Chinese migrants in the Far East Territory.

In Khabarovsk Chinese workers, as in the early XX century, lived in the so-called Chinese settlement. In the late 1920s, more than 4 thousand Chinese lived there and there were more than 70 households. Usually a house was rented by a “foremen” and then he rented rooms in the house to workers. For example, a foremen whose name is Zhang Shen  rented a housing for 3 rubles 75 kopecks per month, and lease it to workers for 2 rubles plus up to 25 rubles for food monthly. In addition, they organized card game charging 10% from each game. The house had special rooms for smoking opium. Moreover, selling alcohol and prostitution were widely prevalent there. Chinese Zhang Minfa rented a house at 17, Militseyskaya street and gave 38 rubles per month to the landlord, taking 2 rubles from 60 workers. Smoking opium, gambling with cards and the spread of smuggling were common among Chinese workers. The police did not pay enough attention to these problems. Some policemen took bribes and turned a blind eye to the lack of documents among Chinese workers and sometimes they even smoked opium with the Chinese. Moreover, employees of the Primorsky regional Department of The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs using their agents sold opium to the Chinese.

There were made attempts to radically improve the food system of Chinese workers. Public canteens were organized for them. In total, by 1930, in the Far East Territory 8870 Chinese and Korean workers served not only canteens for the Eastern people, but also mixed (together with the Russian population). In 1931 in Vladivostok, Blagoveshchensk, Khabarovsk, Nikolsk-Ussuriysk, Nikolaevsk-on-Amur, Artem were available 14 canteens for Eastern workers. Of course, this greatly improved the nutrition for Chinese workers, although there were significant shortcomings in the organization of canteens. There were not enough cooks and staff, hygiene standards were often not followed, the quality of food did not meet the requirements, the food was not diverse, there were very few Chinese dishes on the menu. The price of lunch – 70 kopecks – was too high for a Chinese worker. Proposals to expand soybean production in Vladivostok in order to improve the nutrition of Chinese workers remained ignored.

Changes were made to the rules for transferring workers’ money to their country. On February 10, 1932, the Board of the people’s Commissariat of Finance of the USSR approved “instructions on the procedure for authorisation for the transfer and export of currency abroad in the territory of the Far East by Chinese, Japanese and Korean workers”. According to this document, the Eastern workers of the state and cooperative industrial enterprises of the Far East were granted the right to transfer and export to their country part of their earnings. Only those workers who had a dependent family abroad received the right to make money transfers. Workers could transfer abroad only 5% of the salary, but not more than 7 rubles (workers of the coal industry could transfer 7% of the salary, but not more than 10 rubles). Transfers were made only once a month applying collective requests from enterprises. Translations applied individually were not allowed.

Thus, during the period of industrialization in the Soviet Far East, the need for Chinese labor remained. Chinese migrants are still in demand in various sectors of the Far Eastern industry. There were such factors of presence of the Chinese migrants in the Russian territory as smoking opium, smuggling and etc. Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in the early 1930s became a new reason for Chinese migration to the Soviet Far East, and the task of building a military-industrial base in the region in a short time ensured the need to attract Chinese labor. With a general lack of labor and a ban on the use of foreign force in the defense industry, Chinese labor was important in the mining, particularly in the gold industry. In the conditions of deterioration of the international situation in the Far Eastern region, the Soviet authorities remained the priority of accelerated socialist modernization.


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Ph.D. in History, Head of the Department of Sinology of the Blagoveshchensk State Pedagogical University.


Translated by Anna Maistrenko, APIR Center.

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