Poverty and Prison Camps

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.  

6 Comments

  1. I wonder if we’re in for a full-bore boom in penal history, at least in Asia? I finished Botsman’s book on the Tokugawa-Meiji transition a little while back (I’m probably going to use it next time I teach my Tokugawa-Meiji course).

    Dikötter’s work on POW camps definitely qualifies as a start, not a finish. I took a look at the article on the Communist prison and the source problems are immense: undated sources acquired illegally (by Chinese law), no archival access…. we do what we can with what we have, but it’s going to be a while before we have anything other than impressionistic results.

  2. Did you mean the sources in this article?

    ‘Crime and punishment in post-liberation China: The prisoners of a Beijing gaol in the 1950s’, China Quarterly, no. 149 (March 1997), pp. 147-59.

    I should have been more specific and it looks like the list of publications he has doesn’t list the article I was thinking of, I meant this article by him:

    The Emergence of Labour Camps in Shandong Province, 1942–1950 in 2003 China Quarterly

    That article has some great Shandong archival materials in it. I only hope I can get similar access to the same archive where I hope to find some materials related to my own diss research.

    Here is what he has to say about his sources in footnote 6 of the latter article: “I have used the Shandong Provincial Archives, Jinan, series C23, which encompass the
    quanzong G1 to G52 of the “revolutionary period”; I also consulted a collection of selected archives published by the local party and available in the Shandong Provincial Archives (Shandong geming lishi ziliao xuanbian (Jinan: Shandong sheng dang’anguan, 1980–87), hereafter SDLS), as well as judicial periodicals and handbooks from the region preserved in the archives of the Investigation Bureau, Taipei.

    Botsman’s book is excellent! Many of us in the department ate it up as soon as it came out. It is a somewhat different approach than Dikötter, however, and spends more time focusing on the shifts implicit in the formation of the modern prison regime and its practices of punishment. Dikötter touches somewhat less often on these questions and the work feels more like a general overview.

  3. You seem to take it for granted that the ICRC had access to POW camps in all theatres of war. That was very far from being the case. If anything, the few references you found were the very rare cases where ICRC delegates were permitted to visit a camp here and there. The overwhelming majority of POW camps were never visited (forget altogether the ones with civilians). The reasons are many: not enough manpower (few Swiss nationals available for the job), transportation and communications difficulties, lack of willingness of authorities to let them in (the Japanese and the Soviets never let any of their camps be visited by ICRC delegates), murkiness of the international law applicable at the time (only the second 1929 Geneva Convention for the Protection of PoWs was applicable at the time, and only to the few countries that had ratified it (which excluded Japan and the USSR)). If you know of other cases, I’d be interested to hear about them, but I was very surprised to read your comment. I have a 16-year career with the ICRC behind me, and it had always been my understanding that id was able to do very little if anything at all in the Pacific theatre and the Eastern European front.

  4. Mr. Surbeck, it is a delight to have a former ICRC official pay us a visit. Thanks for dropping in.

    It is interesting that the manpower was a serious issue as well. I had always assumed that lack of access was the primary barrier to the ICRC being able to perform its tasks.

    I took another look at Dikötter’s footnotes. He references his citations to ICRC materials related to Chinese wartime POW camps, and their interaction with the Chinese Red Cross as follows:

    ICRC CR00/14, doc. 96 “On the Chinese Red Cross past and present activities”, 13 March 1946
    ICRC CR00/14, letter 28, 10 Oct. 1943
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 18 Sept. 1944
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 3 Sept. 1944 and reports dated 1 May 1943 and 15 Feb. 1944
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 7 May 1943
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 1 Aug. 1944
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 18 Sept. 1944
    ICRC G17/34a, letter dated 2 Oct. 1944, and report dated 24 Oct. 1943

    He also notes (p346) the Geneva Declaration on the Treatment of Prisoners of War was translated into Chinese July 1929 (the same month of its release?).

    Other than the Chinese wartime case, I have heard elsewhere that the ICRC archives have a considerable amount of documentation related to POW camps on the Korean peninsula during the Korean war. I have heard that a number of scholars are now making an effort to do some serious research on these materials (recently made available?) with the hope to shed more light on many of the controversies regarding the treatment of wartime POWs on both sides of that conflict.

  5. Yeah, that’s the article I looked at. I’m glad to see that his other work has a firmer foundation, but some of the source issues remain very real.

    I didn’t mean to suggest that Botsman’s book was similar — it’s pretty obvious that they aren’t, actually — but that the topic seems to be coming of age. Ironic, since Foucault’s original work is more under attack for its own source and interpretive problems than ever before….

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