Senior’s research sheds new light on Chinese plans for Jewish resettlement

By MICHAEL TRAUTMANN RODRIGUEZ | November 7, 2019

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ERICMETRO/CC BY-SA 3.0 Zhang presented research on a plan for WWII-era Jewish resettlement in his home province in China.

Sheng Zhang, a senior majoring in international studies, presented his research on the Chinese government’s attempt to create a settlement for Jewish refugees during World Word II — specifically the Yunnan Plan — and the factors that led to its failure on Tuesday. Zhang is the 2019 recipient of the John Koren Award for Holocaust Research and Education, which is granted annually to an undergraduate student researching the Holocaust. 

Ellen Heller, a judge and the former president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee who was in the audience that night, commented on Zhang’s work.

“I was very impressed with the talk this evening that the student did so much primary research in archives to uncover an important part of history that speaks well of the Chinese — they did try — and to bring it to light,” she said. “I hope he does publish it somewhere so more would know about it, and it is another example of great Johns Hopkins’ principles.”

Heller explained that she believed Zhang’s work greatly expanded the scholarship on Jewish history in modern China by uncovering a whole new dimension of historical space for academics to examine.

Some people will already know about the Jewish peopel that spent much of World War II trapped in the Shanghai Ghetto, but hardly anyone until Zhang knew about the Yunnan Plan.

Zhang explained that his research centered on the plan to have 100,000 Jewish refugees form a settlement in inner China, which Jakob Berglas and Sun Yat-sen spearheaded. 

This plan was discussed and debated within the Kuomintang (KMT) of China, otherwise known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. It faced a lot of obstacles, some of which were based on logistics while others were based on anti-Semitic sentiment.

“It is... probably the only case that a country ever thought about establishing a Jewish refugee settlement region on its mainland as a counter-reaction to the Holocaust,“ Zhang wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “The Yunnan Plan, as a plan voluntarily designed by the Chinese government to be implemented in Chinese territory, was a much more complicated and controversial one involving both Chinese domestic politics and Chinese foreign policy.” 

Zhang wrote that he had both personal and intellectual reasons for pursuing this particular research topic, in addition to holding the belief that the Yunnan Plan has received limited academic exploration in the past. 

“Yunnan province is my hometown and I actually grew up at Tengchong city. So it is a really cool thing for me to know that my small hometown in one of the most underdeveloped provinces of China actually once had some significant historical events going on,“ Zhang wrote. “The Yunnan Plan is actually a very significant event in the history of the Holocaust instead of a minor side-story because it is one of the most remarkable cases of international efforts to rescue Jews suffering under Nazi persecution and of Jewish self-rescue during the Holocaust.”

Steven David, a professor in the Political Science Department at Hopkins and Zheng’s undergraduate thesis advisor, commented on the prevalence of anti-Semitic ideas among the elite of China.

“I always thought of China as a country that was not really exposed to or embracing of anti-Semitism, but clearly that was not the case. They didn’t want the Jews because they were all communists; they didn’t want the Jews because they were all capitalist; and the Jews were very weak, but they were all-powerful. I mean almost every stereotype was also accepted by much Chinese elite, and that was illuminating and somewhat depressing,” David said.

Professor David further tied the tactics used to stop the acceptance of refugees into China to the current immigration crisis.

“Some of the issues used to keep Jews out of China are now being used to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe: ‘They are spies, they cause trouble, we can’t trust them.’ It gives you a sort of sympathy and empathy for people who are desperate to find safe places to live,” David said.

Heller, who noted the importance of combatting these narratives about refugees, echoed these sentiments.

“Refugees are a main issue today,” she said. “It was prejudice in the end, and exaggerations and falsehoods of conspiracy and the fact the Jews were ‘mercenary,’ and ‘selfish,’ and ‘wouldn’t be good on the interior,’ makes us rethink how we should value that. The issue then is how do we then combat these false stories and these prejudices to assist people who have to flee even temporarily to escape and to be able to survive.”

Zhang stated that there was an anti-Semitic misunderstanding of Western politics in China, where many Chinese elites believed that Jewish groups had an outsize influence on British and American politics. 

“KMT has a Judeo-centric misunderstanding of the situation,” Zhang said. “They felt like the Jews can control the politics of Britain and the U.S.. So, their plan is let’s help the Jews so that they manipulate Britain and the U.S. and help us against Japan.”

Zhang further explained that these contradictory views of the Jewish refugee originated from the skewed perception of Jewish people in the Chinese population, that both led to the drive to implement the Yunnan Plan and its eventual failure. 

“The Judeo-centric misunderstanding was proven to be sort of wrong and the Chinese realized that this plan is not going to bring U.S. and British support as expected. Second, some Chinese officials, namely those who studied abroad in Europe and the U.S. (such as Chu Chia-hua), held anti-Semitic stereotypes such as that Jews were Communists or Jews were mercenary capitalists who only care about money instead of their nation,“ Zhang wrote. 

However, Zhang ultimately reiterated his belief that it was China’s domestic burdens and preoccupations, rather than individuals’ anti-Semitic stereotypes, that caused the Yunnan Plan to fail. 

“Most people see them as capitalist, even some grassroots Chinese’s intellectuals and international media,“ Zhang said. Only the KMT itself was conscious about the communist thing.”

Aside from the anti-Semitism, other obstacles presented themselves to the Jewish refugees stemming from the governing members of China. Of note was a fee that was being asked of the Jewish refugee in order for them to enter the settlement and a required application for Chinese citizenship.

“When the Jews came into China, they had to unconditionally apply for Chinese citizenship because they didn’t want foreign citizens to be able to ask for foreign intervention in Chinese territory,” Zhang said. “They raised [the price to go into China] to 100 pounds. This is something that made Berglas very unhappy because Jewish refugees didn’t have that much money.”

David noted the originality of the research, stating that this is an aspect of Jewish studies that goes unnoticed.

“It is fascinating. So much of what you see in Jewish studies is stuff you have seen already and you try and find a little nuance, something new,” David said. “This to me was all new, I had no idea about the Yunnan Plan, and it’s extraordinary that Zhang was able to have access to these archives and go through them and tell us about this historical episode that I think very few people are aware of.“ 

Zhang explained the relevance of the Yunnan Plan to the present in an email to The News-Letter, articulating it as a continuous question throughout history that will always present itself to policy makers. 

“The Yunnan Plan is a perfect case for one to analyze the compatibility and conflict between humanitarianism and realist considerations in policy making regarding refugees,“ Zhang wrote. “Reading the history of the Yunnan Plan, you can always see the conflict between humanitarian ideals and realist calculations as we are seeing today as well in almost all the refugee issues.”

He added that the divide between humanitarianism and realism was likely to carry on into the future with just as much relevance to policy decisions and peoples’ lives as in the past.

“More than 70 years after the Holocaust, humanitarian policy toward refugees are still a conundrum for the world’s governments everywhere today and the conflict between humanitarianism and realist calculations are still haunting us and will probably continue to haunt us in the foreseeable future as well,“ Zhang wrote. 

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