We hear a great deal about refugees these days: about how countries should be doing more to help those in flight, or doing more to protect themselves. This polarizing debate is not new. Rather, it echoes the many heated discussions about the movement of refugees in recent history, including throughout the Cold War as migrants left “Red China.”
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party emerged victorious from the long civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The impact was immediate. Seven hundred thousand people left for the British colony of Hong Kong in the following two years. Hundreds of thousands of others moved to Taiwan, Southeast Asia and, where possible, overseas to Australasia, Europe and the Americas. However, finding refuge was difficult.
The spectre of mass migration from Asia terrified white settler societies including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Built on immigration policies that perpetuated the displacement and disenfranchisement of indigenous populations, white settler societies pursued nation-building projects that included some migrants for permanent settlement and deliberately excluded others. Beginning in the 1880s, they constructed “great white walls” using laws and regulations that prohibited the settlement and integration of Chinese migrants and others from Asia. These exclusionary policies were at the core of white settler society nationhood and citizenship projects, even after the Second World War and played a central role in the design and character of the postwar international refugee regime.
When the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was penned, signatories were given two options: agree to a broad agreement that covered refugees in all parts of the world or restrict the application to refugees born of events occurring in Europe prior to 1951. All of the signatories chose the latter. The desire to have a more restrictive agreement was born of fears about having to accept undesirable migrants. In white settler societies, Chinese migrants were at the pinnacle of undesirability. The emergence of hundreds of thousands of refugees during, and in the immediate aftermath of, the Chinese Civil War generally engendered fear rather than compassion.
Yet the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Asia also posed a serious dilemma for western politicians and policymakers engaged in Cold War confrontations with the Soviet Union and other communist countries. The rhetoric of liberty, freedom and justice amounted to very little for groups discriminated against by the state, a point that communist authorities were quick to point out. How white settler societies, and the United States in particular, responded to Chinese migrants in the Cold War became a litmus test of their claims to moral superiority.
Initially, officials amongst white settler societies dismissed refugees from the PRC as “illegal immigrants” or “rice refugees” (a variation on the term “rice Christians,” which was applied by missionaries who suspected certain Chinese converts of adopting the faith for material rather than spiritual benefits). However, increasingly vocal advocacy on behalf of refugees by transnational networks of secular and religious humanitarians ultimately forced governments to respond, albeit in modest fashion.
Somewhat ironically, given pervasive criticisms of America’s empty Cold War rhetoric, it was this very same rhetoric that propelled the United States to do far more than other white settler societies on behalf of migrants leaving the People’s Republic of China. Beginning in 1950, the US passed special refugee legislation that opened the door for some migrants to come from Asia to America as refugees. Successive administrations also used the executive power to admit select groups of refugees. In 1962, for instance, the Kennedy administration paroled 5,000 Chinese refugees from Hong Kong. It was the largest overture towards refugees in Asia up until that point and it was one that the Kennedy Administration could hardly avoid given media coverage of the 1962 “spring exodus” and the Cold War rhetoric that the United States had advanced previously.
In April 1962, authorities in the PRC temporarily lifted the exit controls that had governed movement out of the country after 1951. Sixty thousand people attempted to make their way into Hong Kong. British colonial officials were unnerved by the so-called “influx” and responded by reinforcing restrictions on entry and physically removing people from the colony. These actions galvanized refugee advocates who argued that by returning migrants to the PRC, officials were sending them back to “certain death.” Western journalists and photographers in Hong Kong documented the arrival and return of migrants for audiences around the world. This unprecedented media attention was a key factor in forcing white settler societies to reconcile their self-proclaimed humanitarian identities with long-standing fears about Chinese migrants as permanent residents.
With its parole initiative, the United States proved to be the most grandiose, relatively speaking, in its efforts. In other white settler societies, the fear of large numbers of Chinese migrants as permanent settlers endured and crippled any possibility of humanitarian largesse. In response to the events in Hong Kong, the government of Canada created a program for 100 Chinese families while the government of New Zealand repurposed a pre-existing orphan adoption scheme that facilitated the adoption of fifty Chinese orphans from the British colony. These programs were created under the guise of humanitarianism but they were deliberately designed to be limited in scope. The Canadian government selected refugees without pre-existing ties to Canada, fearing that people who might have sought entry previously under family sponsorship programs – and been refused – might try again. The government of New Zealand liked the idea of a humanitarian program for orphans precisely because it did not carry the risk of large sponsorship obligations.
These limited efforts proved so taxing, and were so fraught with contradictions, that white settler societies largely turned their backs on refugees in Asia until the late 1970s when the dramatic departure of millions of migrants from Indochina once again forced them to reconcile their words and actions. As white settler societies once again wrestle with how to best assist refugees – this time from Syria and the Middle East - it bears considering how the history of ambivalence and disregard for refugees in Asia during the Cold War shaped the contemporary context in which discussions of humanitarian and global responsibility are taking place.