- Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War by Laura Madokoro
Today, the refugee crisis in Syria has become the focus of international contention, torn between humanitarian rhetoric and the concern of national security. The media often labels the refugee crisis as an unprecedented human displacement issue, but forgets, as Madokoro reminds us, that refugee crises have happened in recent history. Her new book, Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War, sheds light on millions of refugees who were stranded in Hong Kong during the height of the Cold War.
"Refugee" is primarily a legal term that often intertwines with politics. The first chapter of the book examines the problem of defining refugee in the legal field. WWII had produced a colossal volume of refugees all over the globe. The United Nation tried to establish codes to regulate the issue, but its attention concentrated on Europe. The 1951 Refugee Convention, which shaped the legal foundation for many countries' refugee policies, considered refugees in Asia a "different matter" (25), allowing all the initial signatories to not apply it to refugees in Asia (32). Asian refugees thus were stripped of legal protection from the convention and left in the hands of individual governments.
Most of the book is about Chinese refugees in Hong Kong. Chapter two centres on the Hong Kong government's policies on refugees. Hong Kong, a traditional Chinese territory, was leased to Britain in the 1840s and [End Page 658] became a British colony. By the end of WWII, the population there was merely 600,000. During the Civil War in China (1946–1949), more than one million Chinese fled to Hong Kong. The trend continued after the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. Such a massive population arrival turned Hong Kong into "one vast camp" (37). Not wanting to become a "glorified soup kitchen for refugees from all over China" (41), the Hong Kong government was unwilling to provide direct relief services to the refugees. As a matter of fact, the government deliberately avoided using the term "refugees," which imply humanitarian obligations, and instead called the immigrants squatters. It actively coordinated with the PRC government to impose border control and threatened to expel Chinese immigrants. However, the proximity to mainland made it impossible to completely shut down the inflow of immigrants. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese landed in Hong Kong: these immigrants were determined not to go back, and endeavoured to survive.
Chapter three concerns itself with those humanitarian organizations that provided refugees with urgently needed health and welfare care. Thousands of western missionaries lived in the colony in the 1950s and became a "third force" in Hong Kong society (57). Other ngos also played significant roles. American agencies alone provided services to a quarter of the Hong Kong population (61). But those organizations had fundamental differences in how they perceived their responsibilities. To further complicate the matter, the Taiwanese government and Beijing also had their agents in Hong Kong who promoted political agendas, even incited violence and riots.
Although western powers generously offered relief services, they were reluctant to provide widespread resettlement to their home countries. Chapters four, five, and six focus on resettlement programs in "white" countries. Madokoro points out, in the 1950s, nearly all white countries applied race-based restrictions on permanent entry to their countries and domestically threatened to deport illegal emigrants in order to keep their countries white. In the early 1960s, after the Great Famine in China (1958–61), a new wave of desperate Chinese escaped to Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government reinforced border control and adopted a policy of "indiscriminate returns" (132). But this time, western media such as Life, and New York Times, started to publish images of those refugees. The unprecedented media coverage proved a powerful medium to engage the Western audience. So increasingly, western governments incorporated humanitarian principles into their legislations. In 1962, the US government announced the admission of 5,000 refugees from Hong Kong. Canada, New...