As Alec Dubro points out in a recent article for Foreign Policy in Focus, Russia’s fear of its more populous southeastern neighbor is hardly new. Yet, he writes, “[f]or an armchair geo-politician, this seems an easy prediction: Eastern Siberia will soon become Chinese. In fact, the theory seems to be aired every few years, each time with an air of discovery.” Over the years American observers have raised this specter numerous times, from a 2006 Newsweek feature to Henry Kissinger’s 1982 memoir, all the way back to a The New York Times headline in 1892 describing “Russia’s Chinese Worry.”
Below, Sun Jianlin (孙建琳), writing in Culture and History Vision (文史博览), describes how exactly this fear unraveled an ambitious plan by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to import millions Chinese workers to help develop Russia’s Far East. Although no specific date is given by the author, the bulk of Soviet experts abroad in China left midway through 1960. In light of the collapse of the negotiations cited above, the Chinese workers in Siberia likely returned home sometime prior to this date.
English translation appears below. The original article can be accessed here.
Soviet Union once planned to import millions of Chinese workers
On 29 September 1954, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev led a delegation to visit Beijing, taking part in the fifth anniversary celebration of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. During his visit, Khrushchev proposed to Chinese leaders that because the Soviet region of Siberia lacked available manpower, he hoped that China could send one million workers to the Soviet Union to participate in Siberian development. However, the Chinese side remained noncommittal.
During the course of the talks, Khrushchev said to Mao Zedong: “Comrade Mao, we certainly do not want to create problems for you. Of course we will not insist on our proposal. If you feel this proposal could harm Chinese national pride, then in that case we should refrain from raising the point. I ask you please not to take this to heart. We can make do with our own workers.” In light of repeated requests by the Soviet leadership, the Chinese government began seriously considering sending workers to the Soviet Union.
On 12 October 1954, the Chinese and Soviet governments signed a cooperation agreement. According to the agreement’s provisions, the Chinese government prepared to send workers to the Soviet Union and to provide assistance in managing their work. The Soviet government would provide Chinese workers the same salary and benefits as Soviet workers. During their period of labor in the Soviet Union, Chinese workers would have the right to to remit up to ten percent of their wages back to China. At the conclusion of three years working abroad in the Soviet Union, each worker could remit up to one thousand rubles of their salary back to China. All items purchased by workers while in the Soviet Union could be brought back, and so on.
At the beginning of 1955, China’s State Council called a meeting to discuss “Sending Chinese Workers to Take Part in the Building of Soviet Communism.” The meeting coordinated specific arrangements for workers abroad. It was decided at the meeting to set a concrete figure of 80,000 workers, including 10,000 soldiers as well as workers drawn principally from Hebei, Shandong, Henan, and other northern provinces. At the same time, participants resolved issues such as the Sino-Soviet bilateral health inspection process and the selection of an entry-exit point. In addition, the Railway Ministry was tasked with holding another meeting to coordinate special trains to transport workers out of the country.
Just as the Chinese side conscientiously worked through these matters, problems arose on the Soviet side.
In fact, inviting Chinese workers to the Soviet Union was quite possibly a mere product of Khrushchev’s whim. He had spoken thoughtlessly without passing the proposal to the CPSU’s Central Committee for study or discussion, an action he soon regretted. Khrushchev’s memoir even goes so far to say: “They (the Chinese) want to occupy Siberia, and to achieve that victory without firing a shot. They want to permeate and take control of Siberia’s economy. They want to ensure that more Chinese settle in Siberia than Russians and other Soviet peoples. Simply stated, they want Siberia to become Chinese and not Russian.” Although it was Khrushchev, after all, that had put forward the initiative, he did not want to publicly go back on his word. As a result he directed his subordinates to shelve the plan.
On 29 April 1955, Pavel Yudi, the Soviet ambassador to China paid a visit to Liu Shaoqi [then serving as the First Vice Chairman of the CCP], tactfully suggesting postponing sending Chinese workers to the Soviet Union. However, the Chinese side did not at all understand the Soviet side’s true intention, remaining ready to provide assistance to the Soviet Union as planned. Liu Shaoqi stated that it would be best to first send several hundred or thousand workers to the Soviet Union to gain experience, and to better prepare for a large quantity of workers to arrive later. Finally, the Soviet government agreed to the Chinese side’s suggestion that initially only one thousand workers be sent.
One thousand Chinese workers reach the Soviet Union
During the summer of 1955, the first one thousand Chinese workers and three managing cadres set foot in the the Soviet Union after a long journey from Hebei’s Qingyuan county. The Soviet side prepared to assign them to three enterprises: 400 to the Irkutsk-Kedong Heavy Construction Trust, 302 to the Molotov Construction Authority, and the other 298 to the Dzhida Combined Enterprise.
On 7 July, the first group of Chinese workers set out on a train from Baoding [in Hebei province], passing Inner Mongolia and continuing onto the Soviet Union. After the Chinese workers entered Soviet borders, the Soviet side gave the workers a can of beef and rice, a can of soybeans, bread, as well as sweets, eggs, and other provisions. Because the Chinese workers were not accustomed to eating bread and canned food, the majority of them did not even finish half of what they were given. Some gave their leftover food to the railway attendants, while others threw it from the train. At this point the workers were overflowing with emotion –– they were afraid that they would not be able to continue living once they arrived at the worksite.
Their fear soon vanished like a puff of smoke as the train dropped the Chinese workers at their respective destinations. Upon their arrival, they were met with welcome receptions organized by members of the local party branches as well as the firms receiving the Chinese workers. Soviet workers and their families were exceedingly gracious and friendly in greeting the Chinese workers. Each of the companies also organized activities for the workers including bathing, film-watching, and walks in the park, all of which the Chinese workers found quite moving.
After several days of rest the Chinese workers were brimming with enthusiasm to begin their manufacturing work in the Soviet Union. Once they began, the Chinese workers primarily assisted with manual labor tasks, including carpentry, painting, bricklaying, digging, and similar jobs. Because the Chinese workers had hoped to gain skills in the Soviet Union, these job assignments engendered discontent among some of the workers. When the time came to designate official work assignments, many of the workers vied to be first to sign up as carpenters, because woodwork was considered a specific skill. Some teams even went so far as resorting drawing of lots to resolve the problem of who would be chosen as carpenters.
Initially, because the workers’ lacked skills, and because many were young or lacked sufficient physical strength, some completely failed to meet their production quotas. Yet as the skill level and translation ability improved, the number of workers completing their quotas rose day by day, and as a result, the Soviet side grew quite satisfied with the Chinese workers. After a period of contact, the diligent and proficiently skilled Chinese workers received approval and praise from the Soviets.
Dormitories had radio and a periodicals reading room
When they first arrived in the Soviet Union, the Chinese workers were not used to eating Western food. The Soviet side was very concerned about this issue. The leading party and union cadres often went to the workers’ living quarters to inspect their clothing, food, and living conditions. Charged with resolving issues related to the workers’ livelihood, the Soviet side sought out cooks among the Chinese workers to improve the food situation.
In the residences, the Soviet side provided the Chinese workers two-story dormitories, with four to six workers sharing each room. These rooms had coated floors as well as heat. About once a week the Chinese workers could exchange their blanket covers, sheets, and pillow cases for a clean set. Each floor had its own kitchen, two washrooms, and two flush toilets. In addition, damp clothes could be dried in the stove room. At the firms based in Irkutsk and Dzhida, Chinese workers even had a rug at the foot of their bed. At the company in Molotov [former name of Perm, 1940-57], each room had an electric kettle.
Each of the Chinese worker dormitories had a “Red Corner” (that is, a reading room) equipped with tables, chairs, a couch, musical instruments, a wall map, board games, as well as subscriptions to People’s Daily (人民日报), Worker’s Daily (工人日报), the journal Sino-Soviet Friendship (中苏友好报), and other periodicals. The Soviet side also gave each person a radio for recreational use. In addition, each work site set up a hospital, movie theater, club house, store, post office, shoe repair shop, and so on. The Chinese workers were quite satisfied with their living conditions.
Chinese workers experience foreign romance
At the various firms, the service workers in the dormitories and canteens, as well as the stop assistants were practically all women. There were also quite a few women workers in the work sites. The Chinese workers’ hard work and sincerity moved the hearts of many of the Soviet women workers who boldly and enthusiastically took the initiative with the Chinese. In this way several foreign romances unfolded. At Dzhida alone, at least eight Chinese workers fell in love with their Soviet female counterparts.
In Irkutsk, Soviet women workers frequently took advantage of meal times and rest time to get closer to the Chinese workers. Others went to the Chinese worker dormitories to drink. Female Soviet translators were also proactive in introducing women workers to the Chinese. Some Soviet women workers, as a result of the language barrier, wrote down the number of the Chinese worker they liked, and later asked the translators for the worker’s name. One Soviet woman worker bought a pack of cigarettes each day for Chinese worker Hu Lansan (胡兰三). After he transferred jobs, she still walked ten kilometers to see him.
Concerning this “foreign romance,” Soviet officials and the company leadership appeared to be rather open-minded, telling the workers that marriage was permitted in principle, but that it would first have to be approved because some women at the work sites had committed crimes in the past. Because of the outstanding work of the Chinese workers, the general manager of the Irkutsk-Kedong Heavy Construction Trust even said half-jokingly: “I do not plan to let these workers return, I think the best way is for them to get married here in the Soviet Union.”
Meanwhile in Moscow
At about the same time the the first set of workers arrived in the Soviet Union, an eight-person negotiating team arrived in Moscow planning to discuss arrangements with the Soviet side for proceeding with sending workers to help the Soviets advance in the building of socialism. However, when they were greeted by the head of the Soviet Union’s Labor Reserve Office, he said said unexpectedly that the Soviet side had yet to formulate a plan for recruiting additional Chinese workers. In the internal report by the Chinese side’s leading cadre, Hu Ming (胡明) could not help but express his surprise: “This situation is completely out of line with our original plan.”
Afterwards, in the wake of worsening Sino-Soviet relations, as all forms of cooperation between the two sides gradually came to a halt, plans to send workers to the Soviet Union also quietly ceased.
This translation originally appeared on the blog Beijing Time Machine.