Universiteit Leiden

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Lecture | China Seminar Series event

The Laboring Refugee: Profiting from the Displaced during Hot and Cold War

Wednesday 5 April 2023
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
At the end of a day's labor on a CNRRA-UNRRA work relief project refugees walk through the broad streets of Tsingtao.


During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) as many as 100 million people were internally displaced in China. One comprehensive government solution to this problem was a series of programs of rural resettlement, wherein refugees would be sent onwards to new, often remote locations and assigned work according to state needs, mostly physical labor such as weaving, road repair, building fortifications, and cultivating fallow or untilled land. Resettlement offered the tempting possibility of increased social and political control as well as economic production. Thus, the Nationalist government continued to use it in subsequent decades to manage displacement during the Civil War and various stages of Cold War evacuations to Taiwan. 

The proposition that refugees could be “utilized” (liyong 利用) for state interests posed a contrast to late imperial Chinese ideas of rendering aid as a matter of good governance, which prioritized returning the displaced to their original homes. Yet it evoked some aspects of the tuntian military-agricultural system while drawing on newer models of population resettlement enacted by local rural reformers and global colonial regimes. Although postwar international funders such as UNRRA and the US State Department frequently criticized the Nationalists’ execution of aid programs, they did not fundamentally contradict the notion of work for food and the rehabilitative power of labor. Thus, the political economies of both hot and Cold wars rested in part on a refugee infrastructure that was not predicated solely on the collection and distribution of relief, but on the strategic deployment of displaced persons as political, military, and economic resources

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