Ron’s panel on the Chinese Eastern Railway
Last week I attended a seminar sponsored by the Elliott School for International Studies at George Washington University in Washington, DC. The topic of the seminar was the Chinese Eastern Railway 中東鐵路 (CER).
When Russia was building the Trans-Siberian Railway in the late 1800s to link St. Petersburg to the port of Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, they looked at a map and saw that if they could build a rail line through northern Manchuria, Chinese territory, they could cut both time and costs off of the project. Russia approached China, but the Qing government said “no” to the idea of Russia building a railroad.
So the Russians organized the Russo-Asiatic Bank to fund the project as a “commercial” enterprise. When shares went on sale in St. Petersburg, Russia bought almost all the shares to have a controlling interest in the line. The French bought many bonds in the line, and the Chinese government invested some funds also. But Russia ran the project as if it were all their own. They built the city of Harbin 哈爾濱in North Manchuria, ran lines not only eastward to connect to Vladivostok, but also south to the ice-free port of Dalian. They stationed Russian military units along the tracks to protect the route, they hired and paid thousands of Chinese workers, and many Russian investors, bureaucrats and ordinary adventurers moved into Harbin. The CER began operation in 1902.
The history of the line is one of contestation, and finally in 1935 Russia sold it to the occupying Japanese. Russia re-inherited the line in 1950 when the People’s Republic of China was founded, and they then returned it to China as a gift.
I visited Harbin in early January to look at the old buildings of the CER, many of which are well-preserved (strong brick and mortar construction). I visited the Russo-Asiatic Bank building and saw an exhibition of old Czarist Russian ruble notes. I saw the crumbling facades of the old railway-connected warehouses in the Daowai 道外區section of the city where inscriptions in old Cyrillic still grace their fronts. The old Yamato Hotel built by the Japanese in the 1920s had a nice exhibition of old photos of the hotel in its heyday. I realized that the city administration is trying to preserve the Russian façade by building modern office building and apartment blocks in with fronts that mimic the turn-of -the-century Russian style, with mansard roofs, cupolas at the corners, and fancy decorations along windows and cornices.
My job at the conference was as a commentator on the papers presented, and I was able to add a first-hand report on Harbin, the city that is inevitably linked with the CER. Ron’s remarks can be found here.