I recently finished reading Crime, Punishment, and the Prison in Modern China, 1895-1949 by Frank Dikötter. You can find pictures from the book posted on his website here. The book is a well written overview of the history of modern prisons in China, beginning with the late Qing through the war against Japan, with a few pages on the civil war that follows. Dikötter has written elsewhere about his preliminary findings about early Communist labor camps, taking his research into the 1950s.
Dikötter’s book is especially strong when it explores various attempts to reform the prisons in the Republican period, even if a lack of trustworthy information prevents a full evaluation of the effects of some of these reforms. Despite the wide chronological coverage and national scope of the book, the footnotes reveals a truly remarkable amount of archival research.
One section I found of particular interest was his short discussion of Chinese POW camps during the war against Japan.1 In this section Dikötter uses materials from International Red Cross (ICRC) archives to help him get at the conditions in the camps.
The conditions in wartime Japanese POW camps (when captured soldiers weren’t shot, as was sometimes the case, especially in the China theater) were of course infamous, and the target of much criticism at the war crimes proceedings that followed the war. Beyond the unnecessary direct brutality of the guards (a non-trivial percentage of which were Koreans and Taiwanese) towards their prisoners, however, the relatively high death rates in Japanese camps (as well, we might mention, in Soviet camps, North Korean POW camps among other well-known examples) as compared with death rates of non-Slavic prisoners in Nazi POW camps is sometimes attributed to a simple brutal fact: The dire logistical reality faced by the military forces meant they could rarely provide sufficient supplies to their own soldiers, let alone supply thousands of POWs in the elaborate camp system.
If any belligerent in World War II was strained for supplies, surely China was one of them. However, Dikötter’s short discussion of Chinese POW camps based suggests that China’s strong desire for international legitimacy and continued support from international agencies led one of the poorest participants of the Second World War to go to considerable lengths in providing for its Japanese prisoners.
Although the ICRC representative sent to China, Ernest Senn, did not have access to all POW camps and his correspondence was heavily censored, his reports generally suggest relatively good treatment and health for Japanese prisoners in Chinese POW camps. Like many countries, there were also camps used as propaganda showcases such as the “Paradise Camp” located 20km south of Chongqing.2 Suggestions by the Red Cross to improve latrines and washrooms in one camp were apparently followed and supposedly the agency received no complaints from prisoners. Dikötter contrasts the treatment reportedly given to Japanese prisoners in the evidence available and the horrible fate of political prisoners in the SACO (Sino-American Cooperation Organisation) run camps as well as the wretched conditions of the average Chinese soldier fighting in the war. He notes, however, that at least one camp was heavily reliant on medical support from the Red Cross, which suggests that international support might partly explain tolerable conditions in some camps.
The problem with this short section on POW camps is, of course, that it is mostly dependent on ICRC reports from a limited number of camps. We ought to carefully evaluate such evidence, including the lack of prisoner complaints. I am curious what ICRC reports on German prison camps, North Korean, and South Korean camps concluded. One thinks of various war movies showing scenes where prisoners are pressured to spruce things up for visiting Red Cross officials. I’m sure there are memoirs and other materials that can be found on the Japanese side that might give us more anecdotal information on the Chinese POW camp conditions, just as we have learned horror stories in the accounts left by former prisoners of camps elsewhere. I know there is a considerable amount of Japanese material on Chinese Communist run prison camps and the elaborate efforts made to convert and use Japanese soldiers for propaganda uses, not to mention utilizing their technical skills.
If the bulk of Japanese anecdotal materials confirm Dikötter’s suggestion that, overall, Chinese treatment of Japanese POWs was relatively decent, it might contribute to a debate about what conditions are necessary for international norms, such as those articulated in the Geneva conventions that govern the treatment of prisoners, to have a significant impact on even the most resource-starved belligerents in a violent conflict.