Where Empires Collided: Russian and Soviet Relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau

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Where Empires Collided: Russian and Soviet Relations with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, by Michael Share. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2007. xxiv + 376 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover).

Michael Share's study traces the course of Tsarist Russian, Soviet and post-Communist Russian dealings with these peripheral Chinese-majority-inhabited territories, which spent much of the modern period under foreign rule: Hong Kong for a century and a half by the British, Macao for almost 450 years by the Portuguese, and Taiwan for half a century by the Japanese. In all three cases the involvement of Russia, in its various incarnations, was decidedly marginal. Share treats whatever archival and secondary materials are available with considerable skill and objectivity. The Foreword was written by a senior Russian diplomat with extensive involvement in Russian and Soviet dealings with China and Asia in general, but despite this endorsement, Share manages not to present too favorable a picture of Russian perspectives on policies and historical events. The simple fact is that Russia's relations with the three territories never amounted to much. Share has to resort to a good deal of (often repetitive) background information and Russian reactions to more important events in adjacent Chinese territory to avoid (just) seeming to make a proverbial "silk purse out of a sow's ear".

Nevertheless, thanks to his lively writing style and usually judicious analysis and background comments, Share manages to sustain the reader's interest. There were influential persons in all the three phases of Russian history covered who were aware of the potential economic and imperial geostrategic importance of the three territories. In the nineteenth century major naval figures, such as Baron Kruzhenstern and Admiral Putyatin, recognized the potential usefulness of Hong Kong and Macau for Russia's imperial interests in the intensifying competition with the British and increasingly the Japanese empires. They and others around the Tsars also saw the value of Taiwan in the growing rivalry with Japan over influence in the Far East, in the context of a disintegrating Chinese empire. However, defeat in the Crimean War, preoccupation with the Balkans thereafter, and the success of the Japanese against China in 1895 and then against Russia herself in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05, put paid to further direct Russian involvement.

In the Soviet period, the rivalry between the Comintern and the People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs (Share persistently calls it a "Ministry", which it wasn't formally until well after the demise of the Comintern) was well illustrated by the conflicting strategies and tactics with which they pursued their goals in the three territories. Communist parties and trade unions had little or no traction in Macao under the proto-fascist rule of Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar, and they fared little better on Japanese-ruled Taiwan. They were more successful in Hong Kong, and they organized a series of effective strikes there in the 1920s and early 1930s. They were eventually put down by force by the British authorities, but by that time, Soviet foreign policy aims were more focused on curbing the rising power of the Japanese and their German and Italian allies than in further weakening "Western Imperialism".

However, all these concerns in the three territories were merely a sideshow to events taking place on the Chinese mainland, in particular the denouement of reckless Soviet policy vis-à-vis the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-Shek and the emerging Chinese Communist Party of Mao Zedong. In his drive to defeat Trotsky in the Comintern and eliminate him as a factor in Soviet politics, Stalin insisted on going ahead with the disastrous uprising in Canton in December 1927, which was a major impetus to a turning inward of Soviet attention to building "socialism in one country" in its Stalinist form and to recasting the CCP as an increasingly independent actor in Chinese politics, wary of outside interference on policy and ideology. …