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  • Administering the Colonizer: Manchuria's Russians under Chinese Rule, 1918-29
  • Mark Gamsa
Chiasson, Blaine R — Administering the Colonizer: Manchuria's Russians under Chinese Rule, 1918-29. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. Pp. x, 285.

Although the place name Harbin is absent from its title, this is the third monograph in English to address the history of the city that the Russians built in Manchuria (Northeastern China) as the headquarters of the Chinese Eastern Railway (CER), the extension of the Transsiberian railway which passed through Chinese territory. The previous two monographs told us, respectively, about the Russian city from its foundation to the outbreak of the First World War (David Wolff, To the Harbin Station: The Liberal Alternative in Russian Manchuria, 1898-1914, 1999), and the Chinese city from the mid-1910s up to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (James H. Carter, Creating a Chinese Harbin: Nationalism in an International City, 1916-1932, 2002). Now Blaine Chiasson, in the book version of a dissertation originally submitted to Toronto University in 2002 with the subtitle The Chinese Takeover of Russian Harbin, 1920-1932, offers us a history of a short intervening period, eleven years in all. His time span reflects his main interest: the administrative functioning of the Special District of the Three Eastern Provinces, created by Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1920.

It is a useful book on that little-studied subject, and one that fills gaps in the existing scholarly literature. Chiasson gives us important information about the original structure of the Harbin municipality (in chap. 2), the reorganization of the police force in the city in the 1920s (in chap. 4, the best in the book), and the drawn-out process by which the Zhang Zuolin regime finally took over the municipal government of Harbin in 1926 (in chap. 7). The author's main argument is that the Special District maintained an attitude towards the Russian émigrés that was essentially pragmatic (the word is frequently repeated) rather than nationalist in its motivation. Indeed, the real adversary of the warlord regime in northern Manchuria was the Soviet Union rather than the quondam representatives of the tsarist empire, who by the 1920s were rapidly evolving into stateless refugees, and the Special District became adept in using the latter against the former. One may question, however, the rationale of Chiasson's persistent use of the term "concession" to describe Russian Harbin before 1917, even though he admits [End Page 413] that the CER zone was "legally, not a concession at all" (cf. 4, Introduction), as well as his description of the city as "founded by two countries" (p. 2) and his portrayal of Russians and Chinese, incongruously, as the concession's "two founding peoples" (pp. 3, 16, 37).

A solid enough history of an "administrative experiment" (the aim of the author's study, as he defines it on p. 2), this book, drawing mainly on consular reports and the contemporary daily press, cannot pretend to be any more than that; when the author does venture into comparisons and generalizations, the result is hardly convincing. Thus, calling Harbin in the Introduction "the only city in the world in which communities representing Imperial Russia and the USSR worked and lived closely together" (p. 6), he forgets about Berlin in the 1920s; when he makes the far-reaching claim that "the population of the CER concession was the most highly educated in the former Russian Empire" (p. 205), he offers no data to substantiate it; surely, he lets his enthusiasm for Harbin get out of hand when claiming, in a succession of superlatives for which he offers no supporting evidence, that the Harbin Polytechnic "came to be known as China's best technical university" (p. 200), that the CER theatre "was considered the best in China" (p. 211) and that Harbin as a whole was "one of China's most modern, and certainly its most multi-ethnic, city" (p. 221).

In the Conclusion, attempts to extend the findings of an administrative history to the broader field of social history produce statements like this one: "most of the Chinese officials whose names appear in this study spoke Russian, and some...


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