- Elusive Refuge: Chinese Migrants in the Cold War by Laura Madokoro
65.3 million refugees (including asylum seekers and other displaced persons) around the world: that is the figure given by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in December 2015. Given the refugee crises in the early twenty-first century, any book on the subject has enormous contemporary relevance. In order to understand the refugee crises that we face, and to attempt to solve them, a historical perspective is invaluable. A crucial dimension of such understanding is the emergence of the "refugee," and "refugeehood" as contested statuses over the course of the twentieth century, especially in the wake of World War II, when camps for displaced persons existed in many parts of Europe. But while there is a substantial historiography [End Page 81] on the European origins, politics, and legacy of refugeehood in the second half of the twentieth century, historians have examined Asian refugees in much less detail. Laura Madokoro's superbly researched and analytically astute book, which focuses on refugees from the PRC to Hong Kong and their subsequent movement during the Cold War to white settler societies such as the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, makes a major contribution to overcoming that imbalance.
In 1951, two years after the establishment of the PRC accelerated the movement of Chinese to Hong Kong, the United Nations "Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees" advanced a definition of "refugee" that attested to the Cold War's role in shaping the conceptual categories of global politics in the second half of the twentieth century. By specifying that "refugee" was the status of an individual—as opposed to a group—who had suffered or feared political persecution, and by exempting Asia from its spatial parameters, the UN's definition was narrow yet ambiguous. Among the transnational nexuses in which governments, humanitarian groups, NGOs, and would-be migrants engaged in complex negotiations about who was, and was not, a refugee was Hong Kong, since 1842 a British colony with a window on both "East" and "West."
Hong Kong was a destination for migrants from China, and elsewhere in Asia, even before the establishment of the PRC. In the final years of the Chinese Civil War, over 200,000 people, the colonial government claimed, fled to Hong Kong. That number increased over three fold from 1949 to 1950: 700,000 arrived during that time span, or, roughly a third of the colony's population of 2 million. Although these human beings believed that Hong Kong would be a refuge, they often lived in squatter camps where conditions were far from humane. With the newcomers overwhelming infrastructure, and engendering concerns for political, social, and economic stability, the government of Hong Kong sought to use the "malleable nature of the refugee label" (p. 52) as a weapon of exclusion. Prior to 1954, the government's conflation of "refugee" with "squatter" facilitated its attempts to clear the squatters and put pressure on them to leave. A tragic fire in December 1953 in the squatter settlement of Shek Kip Mei, however, catalyzed a new conceptualization in public discussions of refugees as immigrants deserving of permanent housing.
At the same time as Hong Kong officials sought to use the slippery elasticity of the "refugee" category to limit arrivals from the PRC as well as, at times, to render their suffering invisible, a variety of humanitarian aid groups having different agendas (direct aid, development, and/or resettlement) tried to improve their plight. At times, this meant restoring visibility to the Asian refugees excluded by the 1951 Geneva Convention. The efforts of humanitarian groups in this regard were aided by World Refugee Year in 1959. But [End Page 82] photographs of Chinese migrants seeking refuge in 1962 from the famines of the Cultural Revolution appeared in U.S. magazines, such as those shot by Larry Burgess for Time, taught American readers that victims of Communist oppression were not only European (such as the...