Poverty and Prison Camps

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:42 am

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.

  1. Frank Dikötter. Crime, Punishment and the Prison in China (Columbia University Press, 2002), 345-349 []
  2. ibid., 348. []


Summer must be here

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 11:23 am

People seem to be too busy doing nothing to post much, but what good is technology if you don’t use it?

Feng Zikai

By a mountain path. Few guests. A huqin‘s song instead of a radio

Feng Zikai 1935


It’s not a direct flight

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 7:41 pm

An account of how one Chinese migrant got to Italy, from Pieke et. al Transnational Chinese

I got out of China with an official passport. A fake one. I mean it had my details, but a snakehead got it for me. We only learned later that he got it in Ningde pre­fecture [north of Fuzhou]. … I spent a week in Hong Kong, in Clear Water Bay. Hong Kong is beautiful. Then I went to the Ukraine. I spent three months in Kiev, then I took a boat from Odessa to … let’s see … Romania.

Question: A big or small boat?

Xu: A small boat. At that time I still had the official Chinese passport, and you didn’t need a visa to Romania with that.

Question: So why did you have to cross the border illegally?

Xu: There are safety considerations for the snakehead…. From Romania I went to Greece, and from Greece with a large boat to Italy. That was dangerous because [by then] I had a Japanese passport. The Italians caught me at the bor­der and returned me to Greece. Then they put me in prison for four months. I was there together with two Englishmen, Mark and Michael. There were very good, really very good. To this day, it is them that I thank most. Even from Prato, I have called them. I learned some colloquial English from them. So my boss [in Prato] asked me whether I used to teach English. He noticed that I could talk a bit in English when I was dealing with Italian customers. He thought I had taught English. . . . Michael and Mark were drug smugglers. They told me that they had traveled between Hong Kong, Greece, and Britain smuggling drugs. But in Greece they were caught and sentenced to six years. At that time they were going to be released. The father of one of them had already come to Greece to take him home…. Eventually the Greek police took me to the Turkish border at night and told me to go to the other side. I didn’t know what was happening; they were pointing their guns at me. Then it turned out they were helping me cross into Turkey!

Question: Why do you think they did that?

Xu: We didn’t know! We still don’t know! The Greeks had some conflict with the Turks, maybe that’s why. On the Turkish side I got caught, returned to Greece, then the Greeks returned me to Turkey again. For three days I was there wandering in the mountains without eating. Finally I ran into an Iraqi who was in the human smuggling business. He told me how to take a bus to Ankara. In Ankara, we felt very ragged and were very hungry. Finally we found a run­down hotel. We explained to the owner that we were tourists, and all our money and tickets had been stolen, and the owner let us stay. Then we started asking around where there was a Chinese restaurant, because usually Chinese restaurants are in touch with snakeheads. Eventually we found one, but in that restaurant they didn’t know any snakeheads.

Question: Who ran that restaurant?

Xu: Someone from Harbin. He had been living there for fifteen years or so. He told us to go to a restaurant in Istanbul; there we would find snakeheads. With that new group of “human snakes” (renshe, smuggled migrants) we went to Egypt. When we left Turkey we used a Chinese passport, but when we ar­rived in Egypt we used a Korean one, because with that one you didn’t need a visa.

Question: So you had two passports with you?

Xu: Yes. But in Egypt there was some trouble. We didn’t get caught, but there was some trouble with the snakehead, it became dangerous, and we had to go back to Turkey. For the second time it was OK, and we flew from Egypt to Aus­tria, and then from there to Italy. My older sister’s husband came to Venice to fetch me. It took me eleven months to arrive here.

Besides making me feel bad for all the whining I do about long layovers this is story makes me realize that a lot of the simplicity in history is based on lack of data. This guy was in China. He is now in Italy. But the story is a bit more complex than that. I was also struck by both how porous borders are1 and how powerful they still are.

  1. although different borders are porous in different ways. I assume our hero would have had more trouble getting into Singapore posing as a Korean than he did in Egypt []


Protests and the public sphere

Filed under: — Alan Baumler @ 5:43 am


Every society has its own traditions of protest, things that people can do that will get them attention and hopefully enable them to get redress for their grievances without getting shot. Of course these traditions are changing all the time. King’s importation of Gandhi’s techniques of non-violent protest to the U.S. is a good example. Of course these techniques are not entirely portable. In States of Ireland Connor Cruise O’Brian has an account of ‘non-violent’ protest marches in Belfast. The marchers, overwhelmingly Catholic, marched through various Protestant neighborhoods carrying signs and singing songs in favor of an end to the Troubles. As O’Brian points out, the marchers seemed to be unaware of the political traditions of Northern Ireland, where “members of our ethnic group marching through your ethnic group’s neighborhood yelling and beating drums” was not called a peace march.

China also has traditions of protest and is developing new ones all the time. One example of this comes from Ching Kwan Lee’s Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt. Lots of people who used to have Iron Rice Bowl jobs in state industries are owed pensions and are not getting them. How do these pensioners protest? By standing in traffic.

Every time the central government announces publicly that pensions must be paid in full, we are very upset. All of us have television at home and we always watch it. Who would not know about these announce­ments? Every day, elderly people gather in the elderly activity room in our neighborhood, smoking and playing chess, poker, or mahjong. Someone comments on our unpaid pensions and makes a spur-of-the-moment suggestion to block the road. When we get angry, we just go instantly, or say tomorrow morning at 8 or at 9. Once we arrive at the destination, we don’t utter a word. We have no banner or slogan, just stand there. We just want to create public opinion, pressuring leaders of the Machinery and Electrical Works Bureau to talk to the enterprise director. There would usually be several hundred retirees. It’s not a large number it you consider that we have 1,500 retirees in the entire work unit. Traffic police would arrive several minutes after we begin blocking. They would not intervene, just ask politely which enterprise we are from. They say they are just doing their job, and urge us to try our best to move toward the sidewalk. Police would come too, and they would , even urge the traffic police not to push us too hard. They are afraid that elderly people will get hurt, and then the whole incident will become incendiary. Passersby who are on bikes are very sympathetic and are just curious to know which enterprise we are from. But people in buses or automobiles would swear at us, saying, “Those who should die live uselessly.” . . . Very soon, local government officials would come and we would tell them that we are owed our pensions and have no money to see the doctor. They usually are very patient. Once they promise to investigate or to get us paid the following week, we would just disband and go home. The more workers present, the higher the level of officials who would come down to talk to us.

Why this form of protest? Well, a dance marathon is sort of out of the question for these people.

Look, we are people in our seventies and eighties; our bodies are falling apart. We could barely walk. We could only stand still. Standing there on the road is hurtful enough, let alone marches and rallies. My feet and legs are all sore. When we were young, in the Cultural Revolution, we could roam around town and demonstrate. We are too old for that.1

The other advantage of standing in the road is that it fits into a script of protest that makes them look serious but not too radical. Protest needs to be seen by the “public” as something to be taken seriously (that’s why hunger strikes are popular. Even one person starving themselves has weight.) and yet not too out there.2 Lee’s protesters are pretty clear that they want to keep their actions in the script of respectful petitioning.

We don’t want to block railways. Those are major national arteries. We elderly workers are reasonable and we have a good sense of state policy. In Liaoyang and Anshan workers blocked railways and bad things hap­pened to them—public security officers were sent in. If any injury or death occurs, the nature of our action will be changed. . . . We are also conscientious about orderly petition. First we approach our own enter­prise, and if there is no response, we go to the superior department, and then to the city government. You have to follow the bureaucratic hierar­chy of proceeding from lower to higher levels. Then things will be easier.

At least in these cases the method seems to work. By emphasizing their age, ill-health and respect for order and the system the petitioning pensioners are usually able to to get themselves some money. Never all the money they are owed, but some. Given the way they protest the state can hardly send in people to bust heads, and they get sympathy at least from the bike-riding class, if not from the car driving class, and this public sympathy is something that the state will force the enterprise directors to respect.

  1. As Lee points out, this is the generation that has really been punished by Communism. They starved as kids after the Great Leap, were on the firing line for the Cultural Revolution and the Reform era came late enough that the only benefit they are seeing is loosing their pensions. []
  2. P.J. O’Rourke had a great sneer at the People In Black you sometimes see protesting on American campuses “Apparently life sucks when you are a nineteen year old rich kid” []

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