Cold War Conference in Changchun

It has been a jam packed two days spent at a Cold War conference convened by 东北师范大学 Northeast Normal University in Changchun. The title of the conference was “Northeast Asia during the Cold War: Security and Development.”

Some bigwigs in the field were here: Shen Zhihua, Mori Kazuko, Chen Jian, Liu Xiaoyuan, Nobuo Shimomai, Yafeng Xia. But also many younger, very bright historians gave talks: Zhang Yang, Xu Xianfen, Alsu Tagirova, Yao Baihui, and Chen Tao to name a few. Yours truly gave a paper on Yanbian in the 1940s, my first conference paper presentation done in Chinese.

A number of the papers were about the Korean War. Others touched on Sino-DPRK relations, North Korean foreign policy, and US foreign policy in Asia. Few really delved into Japan’s Cold War experience, South Korea and the Cold War, or Taiwan. In other words, although there were 30 papers and presentations, there was a lot more ground that could have been covered in Northeast Asia’s Cold War history. But enough about what was not said. Let me now summarize several of the papers I felt were most interesting.

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Mori Kazuko, a professor emeritus at Waseda University, opened the conference with a keynote address on the nature of the Cold War and how historians tend to periodize its various intervals. Based on a comparison of the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (also in 1979), Mori argued that the 1970s and 1980s is best understood not as the late Cold War, but as the beginning of the post-Cold War era.

She made a number of salient points In addition to reminding audience members to differentiate the Cold War at its various levels (global, regional, within domestic politics, within individual pacts, and even at the individual level), Mori discussed how different the Cold War looks from the perspective of the Great Powers (US, USSR) than it does from the perspective of Third World countries. In other words, what would the Cold War look like if you wrote its history from the perspective of, say, Afghanistan?

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Shen Zhihua’s keynote on the earliest contacts between the Chinese Communist Party and the nascent Korean Workers’ Party was less ambitious than Mori’s but nevertheless offered much food for thought, at least for those of interested in Sino-North Korean relations.

Shen is currently writing a history of China-North Korea ties during the Mao era with Yafeng Xia. (Good news, Shen is also preparing a collection of documents on the subject for publication.) In his talk, he took apart many North Korean publications which claim that North Korea played an essential role in the Chinese Civil War. According to these works, North Korea distributed countless aid to soldiers in Northeast China and allowed many more to seek refuge across the Yalu and Tumen Rivers in dire times.

Shen did not dispute these facts. In fact, he said that this type of assistance was actually quite important in the northeastern theater. However, Shen rejected that it was North Korea offering this assistance; rather, he argued that the occupying Soviet Army in North Korea made all of the decisions to provide aid to the CCP.

Perhaps even more interesting, Shen touched on the Yanbian issue in Sino-North Korean relations and the status of Koreans resident in China after 1945. He, like I did in my presentation and in an earlier publication, argued that it was a total unknown whether Yanbian would recede to Korea after World War II. He also described how the status of Koreans was hotly disputed. Were they Chinese citizens or were they Korean citizens? Because there was no conception of an “ethnic Korean minority” (中国朝鲜族) minority, it was unclear who had rightful claims to these people.

This was a problem for China and North Korea to resolve, but one which they could not do so in earnest until the 1950s. As Shen argued, Sino-North Korean relations did not really get jumpstarted until the Korean War and, at that time, things were too chaotic to settle nationalities and border issues. That had to wait until after the war’s conclusion.

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Zhang Yang, a former ECNU-Wilson Center Cold War Studies Initiative Scholar and now a professor in Zhejiang University’s History Department, spoke about the United States’ cultural activities in Hong Kong during the early Cold War. I liked her paper because it further demonstrates the possibilities of the “cultural Cold War” approach in the historiography; it also touched on an issue which I have been reading more and more about, the politicization of refugees during the early Cold War. Thus Zhang is engaging two important and interwoven historiographical threads.

Zhang argued that Hong Kong was a cultural and education center for refugee Chinese in the Cold War. It was also a magnet for money and other resources from various parties interested in winning the “hearts and minds” of Hong Kong’s people—the US, Taiwan, China, to name a few. Zhang drew on a number of archives in the US, including the National Archives, the Truman and Eisenhower libraries, and the Hoover Institution. She focused in particular on “non-governmental organizations,” such as the Asia Foundation, which sponsored cultural and educational activities in Hong Kong. She noted how the Asia Foundation was largely dependent on federal support, demonstrating the unity of public and private institutions in waging the cultural Cold War in Asia. I was especially interested to learn that the Asia Foundation was equally wary of neutralism as it was of communism.

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There was a lively discussion between Alsu Tagirova, Wang Zhenyou, Yafeng Xia, Eric Hoyer, and Chen Jian on China’s approaches to resolving border disputes from the 1960s through the 1990s, especially with the Soviet Union/Russia. The discussion was mostly anchored around declassified Soviet records, so there was a bit of tea leave reading done in order to discern China’s goals and strategies.

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