Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 9#1 Jasper Altena 1 Jan 1998

On a Secret Mission

Lieutenant Coulon

On January 21st, 1913, Lieutenant Coulon, secret agent with French military intelligence, reported to his commander in Hanoi. His assignment was to investigate the political and military situation in the Southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi.

The French colonial government, which had always kept a watchful eye on Southern China, viewed the anarchistic situation which had arisen there after the successful Chinese Republican revolution of 1911 with great anxiety. Destabilization could easily cross over from Southern China to North Vietnam, which, at the end of the nineteenth century, had been difficult enough for the French to pacify and cleanse of – in their eyes – dubious elements. The central Chinese government could barely keep control over the provinces at its Northern border with Vietnam; its power was being challenged by various warlords, each with their own private army, who were usually pursuing their own gain. Moreover, this region was being plagued by pirates, vagabonds, whores and bandits, and the consequential moral degeneracy. However, the French colonial government's greatest fear was not the situation in China, with its pirates and warlords, but the possibility that the Vietnamese nationalists, having taken refuge in Southern China after 1911, would make use of the situation and, possibly with the help of some of the Chinese warlords, launch an attack on North Vietnam, ultimately aimed at ousting the French. This fear was not totally unfounded, but was grossly exaggerated in Hanoi and Paris. Although the situation around the Northern Vietnamese border remained unsettled for many years, this never went beyond minor border incidents and skirmishes.

The mission of Lieutenant Coulon, who returned by land from Hongkong to Vietnam and Hanoi while collecting information en route and reporting on this, not only gives us an impression of the political and military situation in Southern China, but also, and most importantly, allows us a glimpse into the world of the secret agent.

The account below,

1 The national archives, VietNam, depot No. 1 in HaNoi, Gouvernement-Géneral de l'IndoChine, F5-2205,

translated from the French, is the second of a series of three reports which the secret agent, lieutenant Coulon, sent to his commander in Hanoi. It has been preserved as much as possible in its original state. Inconsistencies in spelling of names have been taken over from the original document. The footnotes include the current spelling of the most important Chinese geographical names and Vietnamese proper names.

jasper altena

Canton, January 21st, 1913

2 Canton = Guangzhou

From Lieutenant Coulon, charged with investigation into the revolutionary Annamese movement. To the Supreme Commander of the Indochinese Armed Forces, Hanoi.

Re: agitation by the revolutionary Annamese

3 Annamese = the French colonial name for the present Vietnamese

On January 9th, 1913, I arrived in Canton and immediately called on his Excellency, Mr. Beauvais, the Consul, who received me with the utmost courtesy and showed himself most willing to keep the military authorities informed in this manner.

It would have been quite impossible to discover anything at all had I had to rely solely on my own devices. Someone who has never visited Canton cannot imagine what a labyrinth it is. In the immense crowds swarming the streets, everyone looks alike, and any attempt at investigation would therefore be doomed to failure, unless the investigator had a strong police force at his disposal, as with the present government, or a well-organised intelligence service, as with our consuls.

In his investigation, Mr. Beauvais is strongly supported by dedicated men who have pledged their loyalty to him, and, in particular, by his exceptional knowledge of Southern China, and of spoken and written Chinese. Thanks to a systematically structured and scrupulously operating organisation, he can put the minutest details in order and find connections between them, without ever losing sight of the wider picture. All those who have attracted attention in the recent past have been given a place in Mr. Beauvais' files.

However, although the Consul is kept admirably informed of everything happening in Canton, he finds the task with which he is charged extremely arduous. The supervision of such a large and turbulent consular district as his is too great a task for one man, especially in the light of recent events and the rapidly spreading new spirit.

In order to trace all the cases of agitation caused by Annamese activists based in Canton, a special agency would have to be established in this Chinese city, modelled along the lines of the espionage network organised by the Japanese in Indochina around 1904. The population at large would have to be lured into a number of shops kept by Annamese agents, where they could satisfy their natural urge to communicate and their irresistible compulsion for careless talk.

However, the foundation of such an establishment would require loyal and competent manpower, capable of carrying through a difficult and dangerous task, but most of all, it would require funds - because money is the greatest problem.

In Mr. Beauvais' eyes, the current situation can be described as follows:

I. It is beyond dispute that certain Annamese are hatching a plot. The comings and goings of the main leaders, the confiscation of correspondence and sums of money, the interception of pamphlets and books, all point to the existence of a movement. But it is difficult to come by more precise details. The consulate did not pick up any specific signs pointing to an imminent attack during Têt

4 Têt = Vietnamese New Year in accordance with the moon calender

or at the beginning of the rainy season. Such an attack would be possible, but Mr. Beauvais has not heard anything to confirm this.

However, one thing is certain: in the past two years, Canton has become an important meeting place for conspirators. Prince Cuiong-De

5 Cuiong De = Cuong De

and Pham-Boi-Chan

6 Pham-Boi-Chan = Pham Boi Chau,

who are both in contact with Sun Yat-Sen, have taken up residence on the east side of the city, in Cha-Ho, the military centre of the province. This area had the advantage that, since the pigtails were cut off, they could remain there unnoticed, while at the same time being closer to the border where letters and sums of money could change hands.

They moved into the ancestral pagoda of the old commander of the black pavilions, Lun-Vinh-Phuoc

7 Lun-Vinh-Phuoc = Luu Vinh Phuc.

Here, on a more or less regular basis, they were visited by some sixty Annamese, minhuong

8 minhuong = min huong, person of mixed Chinese and Vietnamese blood

from Quang-Si

9 Quang-Si, Kouang-Si = Guangxi

or emigrants from Indochina, who had spent time in the Chinese army in order to be trained and later become the officers of the new Annamese army.

However, in the last few months of 1912, governor Hou-Han-Min, who was aware of this situation and was very perturbed by the idea that the French authorities might suspect him of complicity in these intrigues, advised Lun-Vinh-Phuoc to keep a low profile.

Since then, the Annamese have scattered in all directions, without the French authorities having need to interfere. It is very possible that in the meantime some of them have returned to Canton to plan new conspiracies; but Mr. Beauvais has received no such news.

II.- It is undeniably true that the population living in the vicinity of our borders is more hostile than ever. The French representatives in Kouang-Si

10 see note 9,


11 Yun-nan = Yunnan

and Houang-Tong

12 Houang-Tong, Kouang-Tong = Guangdong

are quite unanimous in this respect; the francophobia in these regions has never been more marked. All their information points into the same direction.

This is, of course, the effect of the new spirit and the recent events on which this spirit is based. Most Chinese authorities are perfectly happy with this situation; not only do they not like the French, but above all, they appreciate this hostility because it stirs the population to the detriment of France, which provides a valuable diversion. So long as people are conspiring against France, there will be no conspiracies against the authorities.

However, while our traditional enemy, the Governor of Kouang-Si

13 see Note 9,

makes no secret of his enmity towards us, Hou-Tan-Min, the Governor of Kouang-Tong, has clearly demonstrated his intention to avoid any problems with France. The Cantonese authorities are, in fact, faced with internal tension which is mounting so high that it demands all their attention, and further deterioration of the situation due to external friction is the last thing they need.

The present Governors are afraid of losing their positions, since a powerful candidate, Chang-Kouan-Cheng, the former Viceroy of Kouang-Tong, is competing for their posts. The government is contemplating sending him to Canton to carry out an investigation; the rich men who fled to Hongkong are eagerly pleading for his appointment.

Hou-Han-Min can rely on the allegiance of the regular troops of Kouang-Tong (20,000 men), under the command of General Chang-Kouan-Min. Chang-Kouan-Cheng however, who is of Kouang-Si origin, has the troops (8,000 partisans) of General Long at his disposal. These are also from Kouang-Si and absolutely loyal.

Very recently, the present Governor very adroitly managed to accomplish that General Long and his troops will be sent back to their homeland, thereby virtually carrying the day.

However, the situation is still precarious and requires great diplomacy. Serious insurrections could occur, and this demands all the attention of the local government, which is certainly not busying itself with trifles.

(Note. - General Long's troops will soon be moving out and returning to Quang-Si via the Long-Tchéou Valley. Therefore, considerable troop movements can be expected in this area.)

III. - Mr. Beauvais has the following comments to make with regard to information that Sun-Mei, the brother of Sun-Yat-Sen, is possibly the leader of a Chinese anti-French movement.

It is true that Sun-Mei, squeezed out of the government by his brother and stirred up by his sister-in-law complaining about Sun-Yat-Sen's infidelity, has certainly done everything within his power to make a success of the second revolution and to help Hoang-Ho-Cheun and his followers gain the victory. But that he should have assumed the leadership of the Annamese would seem to be unreasonable.

The name of Quan-Jen-Fou can also be heard as one of Sun-Mei's major henchmen within the anti-French movement. However, this same Quan-Jen-Fou, when being accused of political conspiracy (Fang-Chang case, in the vicinity of Kin-Tchéou), had fled to Indochina. Despite great pressure from the Manchu authorities, the French Colonial Government refused to extradite Quan-Jen-Fou, thereby saving his life.

Now it turns out that, during the struggle for Canton between Cheng-Kouan-Min's soldiers and Hang-Ho-Cheun's pirates, this Quan-Jen-Fou, in his capacity as the latter's lieutenant, sent word to the Consul offering him, in gratitude to France, all the troops necessary to defend the French concession, so that this would not be damaged in any way.

Whatever one's views on the two-facedness of the Chinese, this attitude can scarcely be reconciled with the plans of which he is accused.

IV. - Finally, according to some reports, Lun-Vinh-Phuoc, who is lying in wait in Kin-Tchéou, is biding his time to join the revolt and to pounce on Indochina with his pirates.

Unfortunately, the anti-French sentiments of Lun-Vinh-Phuoc are only too well-known. Still, he does not seem to be obsessed with these feelings, because Mr. Beauvais showed me a letter from him dated December 25th, 1912, which was published in various Chinese newspapers and in which he requests the honour of being appointed commander of the Mongol expedition army. Three days later, the answer was published: this request would be considered if war were to break out.

Thus, on the basis of official documents, which have the huge advantage of sometimes being contradictory and not having been prepared for the benefit of the investigation, Mr. Beauvais has been able to refute the biased rumours which have been amassed by subaltern agents. However sincere and dedicated these agents may be, they sometimes get carried away by their zeal.

This is the greatest stumbling block for all intelligence services. The agents listen to rumours, attributing more significance and credibility to them than warranted, simply due to the effort spent on hunting down their significance.

In the Far East, information spreads faster than anywhere else in the world, and this is even more true of false messages. This is why it is so difficult to determine their truth value - we have to bear this in mind.

The Chinese revolution owes its success to false rumours which were widely published in the press.

Just today, my scout told me that the Annamese from Chamin have assured him that the Détham

14 Détham = De Tham, a Vietnamese who fought the French colonial government

is presently staying on Hai-Nan island

15 Hai-Nan = Hainan.

Where did this rumour spring from, and what does it mean? It is a mystery.

With a task assignment such as that of secret agents in China, in my opinion, we should restrict ourselves to generalities, and only enter into details in exceptional cases, when evidence is available.

And so I would like to conclude my report in total agreement with Mr. Beauvais.

Of course, there are conspiracies.

Of course, we have to be on our guard and attempt the impossible to expose the troublemakers.

Of course, there is a whole mob of pirates and deserters, armed, sometimes even well-armed, who could attack us at any time, just as they could attack the republican government. But to pretend that such riots will break out before long, that the conspiracy is a huge, powerful machine, would seem to be beyond the limits of what is plausible.

Therefore, I do not conclude that no danger exists, certainly not. But I do feel that it is by no means imminent and is barely tangible.

I have been granted permission to leave via the Si-Kinang Valley.

I shall await your instructions.

I have gathered a great deal of information on the regular troops of Kouang-Tong. I have seen them carrying out large-scale manoeuvres.

I shall report to you on my return.

At this moment, I would like to emphasise that they have made considerable progress, from three points of view: armament, pay, and instruction.

However, I am convinced that the troops camped inland can by no means compete with the garrison at Canton. I shall examine the truth of this hypothesis during my return voyage.

The lieutenant,

translation olivier & wylie