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  • Personnel Exchanges Between China and the Socialist Countries During the Cold War: Introduction
  • Yafeng Xia (bio)


Since the early 1990s, transnational history has become a globally important methodological approach. Transnational historians question the study of history based on national borders and reject the national framework as a means for understanding the past. As U.S. historian Thomas Borstelmann notes, “They focused on migrations, trade, communications, cultural exchanges, political and religious identities”, human rights issues, international sports, and other forms of movement across and beyond national borders.1 In the past 30 years, transnational history has greatly influenced the writing of U.S. foreign relations history and Cold War history.

Even before the concept of transnational history arrived in China, some Chinese historians had already attempted a transnational history approach. In terms of China’s relations with the socialist bloc countries, the transnational history approach is most evident in East China Normal University Professor Shen Zhihua’s (沈志華) book on Soviet experts in China from 1948 to 1960.2 In the last ten years, Chinese Cold War [End Page 1] historians have paid close attention to the origins, scholarly assumptions, profound influences, and possibilities of transnational history. For instance, Professor Wang Lixin (王立新) of Beijing University has published numerous survey articles in leading Chinese academic journals, introducing transnational history to Chinese academic circles.3 In light of his personal experience, Professor Xu Guoqi, a leading expert on the history of Sino-American relations at the University of Hong Kong, sums up four major features of transnational history, in particular its implications for the study of modern and contemporary Chinese diplomatic history. First, it completely breaks through the constraints of the “nation-state” as the framework for writing history, and takes the entire international system, even cultural settings, as its frame of reference; second, it emphasizes the role and influence of non-political and non-nation state actors, such as non-governmental organizations, competitive sports, and even disruptive medical eruptions such as plagues and epidemics in the history of mankind and the course of history; third, it makes use of multi-national archives and employs a global perspective; fourth, it adopts a “bottom-up” approach, placing emphasis on cultural factors, vulnerable groups in society, and the common pursuit of the humanities. Xu thus concludes that the “transnational history approach should be the only magic weapon needed for historians to make breakthroughs in the study of modern and contemporary Chinese diplomatic history.”4 Xu’s arguments serve as the guiding principle for this special issue. The articles in this special issue are all based upon archival documentation from China and from various relevant countries. They cast off the constraints of the nation-state narrative, are written from a non-political perspective, and investigate “grassroots politics” in terms of personnel exchanges among the socialist bloc countries during the Cold War, including interns and trainees, students abroad, workers, technicians, engineers, party workers and soldiers.

In addition to employing these methodological innovations, the articles in the special issue benefit greatly from the availability of new historical materials. For a long while, the declassification of Chinese archives, and diplomatic files in particular, was unsatisfactory. In the first decade of the 21st century, however, there were some encouraging trends. Between 2004 and 2008, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) declassified three large batches of People’s Republic of China (PRC) diplomatic folders (about 83,000 documents) dating from 1949 to 1965. These include political, economic, diplomatic, and cultural aspects of [End Page 2] China’s dealings with its neighbors as well as personnel exchanges, border issues, and affairs involving Chinese nationals living abroad. To compensate for the shortcomings of the MFA files, Chinese scholars have explored archives at the provincial, municipal, and autonomous-region levels, all of which have been declassified to at least the 1980s, and in some cases even to the 1990s. These documents include: (1) Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee and State Council policies and regulations that were distributed to provincial and municipal governments; (2) large holdings of related reports, circulars, and summaries by those provincial and municipal governments that provided economic and technical aid to China’s Communist allies, such as North Korea...


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