Yongusil 45: PRC Power Consolidation, the Korean War, and the “Cold Front” of Historical Research in Hong Kong

By | September 18, 2014 | No Comments

Cold Front

Conference poster | Image: Adam Cathcart

Narratives of the Cold War in East Asia invariably circle back around to the Korean peninsula, and China’s history is no exception. In the early years of the People’s Republic of China, the Korean War played an important role in adding momentum to domestic consolidation. With his new book, The Tragedy of Liberation, historian Frank Dikotter has prominently stirred the pot with local documentation of how the Korean War added impetus to Mao’s repression of domestic ‘reactionaries,’ and how, for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the war spawned waves of both fear and loyalty. But the basic notion behind Dikotter’s domestic interpretation of the Korean War is not entirely new–scholars like Hajimu Masuda (of the National University of Singapore) have been arguing similarly for some time.

In a conference which took place on September 15-16 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, an array of new scholarship was presented which indicated the scope and depth of the Chinese Communist Party’s power consolidation during the Korean War. Adam Cathcart, Sino-NK’s editor in chief, gave a presentation on the subject of Chinese-DPRK cooperation in the visual arts, being paired with a stunning paper on Chinese poster production by Kuiyi Shen, the head of China Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a recognized authority on Chinese 20th century (and contemporary) art. Extending upon his prior writings on the subject of Chinese Communist Party consolidation of cultural and political power during and via the Korean War, Cathcart took the opportunity to delve also into the difficulties of working with North Korean archival resources.

Far more significant than Sino-NK’s presence was a small contingent of young researchers at the conference hailing from Shanghai Jiaotong University’s Department of History. These students (Liu Shigu, Yan Xinyu, and Luo Chenxi) provided reams of documents, images of accusation archives, and tables of documentation on the subject of China’s uneven development of systems of punishment, paranoia, and law in the early 1950s. It was indeed an era of mass movements and fluid suspicions.

The Shanghai group, representing their key advisor, Professor Cao Shuji, also broke into some rather stunning conclusions with respect to widely varying death rates in the PRC during the Great Famine / Great Leap Forward.


Cao Shuji

Graphic on the Great Famine | Image: Adam Cathcart

Young scholars like Li Wankun (a new PhD student at the University of Leeds engaged in PRC land reform research) are poised to add further to the empirical depth of such local studies pioneered by Dr. Cao.

Commenting on all of this and unifying the discourse into plans for future research action was Dr. Julia Strauss, past editor of The China Quarterly and an established authority on China’s systems of mass mobilization and state terror in the early 1950s. Strauss, who is now moving forward with very exciting comparative work for the early 1950s in both Taiwan and the PRC, encouraged writers at the conference to join forces in a fashion more like scientists might do in order to make further research breakthroughs in the years ahead.

Finally, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Hong Kong itself, was a congenial venue for academic debate. Dr. Hsiung Ping-chen and her colleagues brought a liveliness and wise spirit to the shaping and framing of the conversation. And the students at the university, even more so than the actual “Occupy Central” demonstration that occurred on the eve of the conference, reminded at least one participant that the freedom of speech (or, the freedom to research historical problems free of political interference) is a right which academics should never take for granted.

As the intellectual production associated with the “Cold Front” continues to push forward, it may indeed create new atmospheres equivalent to the gale-force winds that accompanied the conference in Hong Kong. As that endeavor progresses, Sino-NK will do its best to add intellectual substance and further archival depth to the project, which seems to have a bright future in store.


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