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  • The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U.S.-Chinese Relations in the Cold War by Meredith Oyen
  • Barry McCarron
Meredith Oyen. The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U.S.-Chinese Relations in the Cold War. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015. 308pp. $45.00 (cloth).

Immigration law and policy were central issues in Sino-American relations for much of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred all but a few select classes of Chinese from entering the United States and precluded Chinese from acquiring US citizenship through naturalization, was a major source of friction in US-China relations until its repeal in 1943, when China was America’s ally in the Second World War. While there is a sizable body of scholarship on the link between immigration and US-China relations during the exclusion era (1882–1943), the same cannot be said for the early Cold War years.

Meredith Oyen helps to fill this historiographical void with The Diplomacy of Migration, a groundbreaking study that examines the connections between migration policies and US-Chinese relations from the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943 until President Richard Nixon solidified Beijing-Washington rapprochement with his historic trip to China in 1972. Drawing on an impressive array of primary sources from archives and libraries in Britain, China, Taiwan, and the United States, Oyen uncovers and explicates the manifold and often significant ways that “migration diplomacy,” which she defines as “the process of using migration policy for diplomatic ends” (4), shaped relations between Communist China, Nationalist China, and the United States. Although policymakers in Beijing, Taipei, and Washington considered migration issues subordinate to national security concerns, Oyen demonstrates that the “low risk” nature of migration diplomacy “turned negotiations over migrations and manipulations of migration policy into safe ways for the United States and both Chinas to pursue larger diplomatic goals” (6). However, Oyen points out that “low risk did not mean no risk” (6) to the extent that “when enough problems emerged in any aspect of migration policy, it could rise to the prominence of high-level policy” (248). At the same time, she moves beyond traditional diplomatic history’s emphasis on decision-making elites by revealing the impact of migration diplomacy on the “lived experience” (8) of a wide range of transnational migrants—including “war brides,” dissidents, deportees, defectors, refugees, and seamen—while simultaneously underscoring the capacity of these nonstate actors to exert a disproportionate influence on foreign relations.

The body of Oyen’s book consists of eight chapters divided into three parts. The first part examines the role of migration diplomacy in fighting the Second World War, efforts to repeal both extraterritoriality in China and Chinese exclusion legislation in the United States, and the showdown between Communists and Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War. Oyen demonstrates that discarding extraterritoriality and the Chinese Exclusion Act were not exclusively a US wartime measure but rather stemmed also from efforts by the Chinese government and Chinese diaspora to secure equality for China in the international arena. She broadens our understanding of the ways that Chinese Americans, via measures such as remittances, donations, and purchases of war bonds, contributed to China’s War of Resistance against Japan. As China descended into civil war, migration policy assumed heightened importance for an increasingly beleaguered Nationalist [End Page E-21] regime. It implemented policies aimed at the Chinese diaspora, including an overseas Chinese repatriation program, to bolster its claims to be the sole legitimate government of China and limit the flow of remittances in the direction of Chinese Communists.

Oyen states that migration diplomacy was an important battleground in Cold War Asia, and part two of her book explores that function in the national security strategy and foreign policy calculus of the United States, Nationalist China, and Communist China. For all three governments, this meant migration policy and practice designed to win the hearts, minds, and finances of the Chinese diaspora. Washington and Taipei reinforced their bilateral relationship through collaboration on measures such as Chinese refugee policy. This policy was also part of US efforts in Asia...


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