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Chinese Migrants and Internationalism: Forgotten histories, 1917–1945
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Chinese Migrants and Internationalism: Forgotten histories, 1917–1945

By Gregor Benton

Routledge 2007  
ISBN 978-0-415-41868-3

Reviewed by John Sexton

There is a monument in Havana carved with the words of 19th century Cuban General, Gonzalo de Quesada – "No hubo un chino cubano desertor, No hubo un chino cubano traidor" (there was not a single Chinese Cuban deserter, nor a single Chinese Cuban traitor). It commemorates the participation of thousands of Chinese plantation workers in the struggle for Cuban independence.

Tricked or coerced by unscrupulous recruitment agents, over 120,000 Chinese laborers were shipped to work on Cuba's sugar plantations from the 1840s to the 1870s. If they survived the passage, during which up to 15 percent died, hellish conditions, amounting to de facto slavery, awaited them on the island. Many committed suicide, others fled to become fugitive maroons, or rose up in rebellion; between 2 and 5 thousand joined the mambises fighting Spanish colonial rule in the Ten Year War for independence (1868-78).

Thousands of Chinese taking up arms to fight for another country's independence contradicts a common stereotype of Chinese overseas as, in Professor Benton's words, "clannish, unassimilable, xenophobic, and deeply introverted". Professor Benton has scoured the history of the past 150 years and uncovered many other examples of Chinese involvement in classic internationalist movements. His book offers a tantalizing glimpse of lives now forgotten, of old but honorable causes, and a wrenching sense of what might have been.

Even more Chinese participated in the Russian Revolution than in the Cuban War of Independence. Tsarist Russia had hired hundreds of thousands of Chinese to work as laborers during the First World War and in 1917 many enthusiastically joined the revolution. Some took part in the storming of the Winter Palace, as many as 70,000 joined the Red Army and 70 joined Lenin's personal bodyguard. Apart from a few, such as Red Cavalry general Ma Shanqi who had some streets named after him, they have been largely forgotten. Most were uneducated, and although hundreds later joined the Chinese Communist Party, none rose to prominence in its leadership.

Professor Benton distinguishes internationalism from transnationalism, which he describes as overseas support networks for fellow countrymen and occasional mobilizations of the diaspora in the service of the homeland; and from cosmopolitanism, a concept associated with globalization, that implies a worldwide society of individuals with a more or less weakened sense of national identity. No-one doubts that young overseas Chinese are in some sense becoming more cosmopolitan, but with China's economic success, many also feel the pull of the motherland. A recent example of a transnational movement would be the mobilizations in support of the troubled 2008 Olympic torch relay.

In further chapters Professor Benton describes Chinese involvement in the labor movements of Germany and Australia and in the Spanish Civil War, where over a hundred, for the most part formerly factory workers in France, volunteered to fight on the Republican side.

A chapter on Chinese merchant sailors describes how ships' crews acted as international couriers for the Kuomintang and later, the Communist International. A Chinese writer described them as connecting the foundations of the movement like a "steel bridge, constructed from their faith and flesh and blood. Like the human nervous system, they punctually relayed commands, like veins and arteries; they transmitted vital nutrients to cells and organs."

Particularly interesting is the penultimate chapter, a survey of Esperanto in China. Professor Benton describes Esperanto's association with Chinese anarchism and later with Chinese communism. Many of China's literary giants, including Lu Xun and Ba Jin, were at various times and to various degrees supporters of Esperanto. The recent growth of English as the international language of business and commerce has obscured an earlier ideal of Esperanto as the language of peace, international understanding and goodwill. For Chinese modernizers, Esperanto had the additional appeal as a possible escape route from the Babel of Chinese dialects and the complexity of Chinese characters.

This is not just a Chinese story; Professor Benton also takes a hard and critical look at the other side of the coin; the actually existing behavior of the international labor movement which was, nominally at least, committed to internationalism. He describes campaigns against the employment of Chinese laborers that took place almost everywhere, but were especially virulent in the USA and Australia. He does not shy from exposing the concealed, and not-so concealed, anti-Chinese racism that extended from rank and file trades unionists right up to the giants of the working class movement.

The book is studded with little gems of information, such as descriptions of Chinese migrants who walked to Europe along the route of the Trans-Siberian railway; of the members of the Red Beards sect who, attracted by the egalitarianism of the Bolsheviks, threw themselves into the cause of revolution. If there is one criticism of the book, at 170 pages, including notes, bibliography and index, it is too short and could have been extended to include more detailed narratives of the history it surveys.

Who will read it? Unfortunately its price tag means it will only be bought by libraries so the answer is, very few, probably only China experts, researchers and students. Another audience might be the Chinese themselves, should a translation appear.

Despite the price, it is a timely book. At a time when fear and distrust of China appear to be on the rise in some sections of Western public opinion, it pays to heed the book's essentially simple message, "the Chinese abroad are no exclusive tribe but members of a common humanity".

How to buy it:

Buy it on Amazon.com

(China.org.cn June 2, 2008)

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