The scenery in Heshun Township of Tengchong County, southwest China’s Yunnan Province. LIN YIGUANG / XINHUA
By Aharon Shai
Recently unearthed documents in Chinese state archives reveal a national plan from 1939 to take in large numbers of European Jews, believing it was the right thing to do
In 1939, China prepared a plan to settle persecuted European Jews in the southwestern Yunnan province, close to the Burmese border, according to documents recently found in Chinese state archives. For unknown reasons, the plan was never implemented.
Additional information about Jewish communities in China is slowly emerging as scholars engage with the country and its history. This growing knowledge includes information about the ancient community in Kaifeng in Henan province, and the Sephardi-Baghdadi community that settled in Shanghai in the wake of British imperial expansion in the mid-19th century.
Considerable information is also accumulating about the Jews who fled from czarist Russia due to the pogroms and revolutionary waves, and settled in Harbin and other centers like Shanghai and Tianjin, or the uprooted European Jews who came to Shanghai at the end of the 1930s and were concentrated in a “ghetto” in the Hongkou district.
However, documents I’ve recently come across from the Chinese state archives reveal an almost unknown government plan to settle refugee Jews in Yunnan, for humanitarian reasons. It’s important to note that when the initiative was drafted, in 1939, the Chinese government itself was in the midst of a humiliating withdrawal inland from the Japanese forces charging west after the fall of the provisional capital of Hankou.
A man walks past the Ohel Rachel Synagogue, which was built in 1920, in Shanghai, China. EUGENE HOSHIKO / AP
After Germany’s union with Austria, in 1938, and the exit of those countries’ Jews in response to harsh, brutal persecution that ensued, the Chinese government in the hinterland capital of Chongqing, in Sichuan province, decided to adopt a suggestion rasied by Sun Fo (also known as Sun Ke), the son of the Republic of China’s founder and first president Sun Yat-sen. Sun Fo, who served at the time as chairman of the state’s legislative authority, proposed to settle Jewish refugees in a remote area close to the border with Burma. (Myanmar). The documented discussions reflect the Chinese establishment’s sympathy for the Jews and its readiness to help them in their time of need, but also broader, more pragmatic considerations.
One document, describing the rationale for the plan, says the world’s Jews then numbered 16 million – four million of them in the United States, three million in the Soviet Union and three million in Poland. The remaining six million Jews, it says, lived in communities scattered around the world. Over the course of 2,600 years of persecution, the document explicitly states, the Jews were oppressed and uprooted. The rise of fascism in Europe led to more brutal, incessant persecution, in particular, in Nazi Germany. The November 1938 assassination in Paris of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath, by a Jew, Herschel Grynszpan, only exacerbated the condition of Germany’s Jews.
The document claimed that the U.S. and British governments had not given the Jews sufficient help. In contrast, the Chinese city Shanghai had granted them vital shelter. But now, with that city inundated with refugees, there was a need to reduce the stream of asylum seekers, as well as distribute those taken in around various places in China.
Under what was undoubtedly an audacious plan, China would both take in numerous asylum-seeking Jews from Europe, and resettle Jewish communities already living in Shanghai in other places.
In addition to the humanitarian consideration, Chinese officials list four major reasons for the initiative. One was assisting small ethnic groups in the spirit of China’s national policy. Another was the hope that assisting the Jews would evoke the British public’s sympathy toward China, mainly because, as is commonly known, many British financiers and bankers who worked in East Asia were Jews.
Color Portrait of Sun Yat-Sen.Library of Congress
China also expected that helping the Jews would increase the American public’s sympathy to China’s distress. Finally, the absorption of Jews, who had considerable economic means and talents, would be a welcome contribution to China, the planners said.
They decided to designate an area close to the southwestern border, appoint an official committee to run the project, enlist Jewish leaders from China and abroad to support the initiative and register Jewish professionals to advance certain fields in China.
At the end of April 1939, at the instruction of Chinese prime minister and finance minister Kong Xiang-xi, a round of discussions was held with representatives of the interior, foreign, defense, finance and transportation ministries. The ministries’ comments were sent to the cabinet, which approved the move in principle.
The plan stipulated that the policy toward Jews of foreign nationality would depend on their citizenship and the agreements signed with their home states in the past. They were not part of the initiative.
However, Jews without nationality would receive special passports from China’s embassies and consulates in Europe. A Jew applying for entry to China will declare that he would respect China’s laws and act accordingly, refrain from any political or ideological activity and not object to the “Three Principles of the People” – nationalism, democracy and livelihood – set by the father of the nation, Sun Yat-sen.
Violating these conditions would lead to the settler’s deportation. Those who wish to be naturalized would have to fulfill the official criteria required of any foreigner asking for Chinese citizenship. Naturalized individuals would have rights equal to any citizen, with no racial or religious discrimination. Since building a nation required various experts, scientists, engineers, doctors, technicians, and the like, people with desired skills would be given preference, the required skills would be registered in China’s embassies and after obtaining the authorities’ approval, and employment contracts would be signed with them. Those arriving without contracts would be registered in China’s provinces and municipalities, which will advance their employment as much as possible. The assumption was that those with the necessary skills would finance their trip to China themselves.
Some of the ministries’ comments and suggestions reflected the prevalent Chinese prejudices about the Jews at the time. The interior ministry suggested Tengyue Town, also known as Tengchong, in the sparsely populated, fertile area adjacent to the Burmese border for the haven. The assumption was that Jewish refugees in Shanghai would also be able to get there by sea, via Burma, which was under British rule from the end of the 19th century, or via Thailand, from which they would proceed to Yunnan province. Other Jewish refugees from Europe would arrive via Suez, the Indian Ocean and Bengal Bay, proceed to Burma and enter Yunnan. The plans says it would be convenient and even easier for European Jews to reach the allocated destination than travel to distant Shanghai. It was proposed that the government would guarantee and assist building adequate housing for the newcomers.
Some of the ministries’ comments and suggestions reflected the prevalent Chinese prejudices about the Jews at the time. The foreign ministry raised the fear that the Jews would in time ask for autonomy or self-determination. Due to the proximity to international trade areas, such a demand could be supported by other states, such as Britain and France. Also, since the Jews are usually mentioned in the same breath as Communism, it was said, China’s enemies could be expected to make the claim that China itself had a Communist orientation.
The documents show that the first secretary in Germany’s embassy in China expressed his government’s concern over the initiative and demanded China take into consideration the Jews’ supposed hostility toward Germany. In general, the ministry recommended settling the Jews in small, dispersed places, not close to international trade zones or routes.
The defense ministry believed Jews should not be granted residence status, which could lead to a demand for full sovereignty. If a Jewish settlement is necessary, the allocated area must be subject to Chinese law, unlike the situation in Shanghai, and not be near the border, it stipulated.
The finance ministry said that Jews with farming or foresting skills should be settled in areas near internal transportation routes or places earmarked for agricultural development. At the same time, it stipulated that the refugees should not be permitted to own land.
The transportation ministry suggested consulting the Jews of Shanghai about settling the European Jews, in order to prepare adequate infrastructure. It is not clear from the documents why the plan was scrapped. They do, however, call for further clarifications. Ultimately they say that with all the good will and approval in principle, further clarifications were necessary. That effectively killed the initiative, and an opportunity to save many from their grim fate in Europe was missed.. Apparently Chiang Kai-Shek, with whom Sun Fo had consulted, was apprehensive at that critical time in the battle against the Japanese, about supporting a plan that would harm China’s relations with Germany.
Indeed, in those days close relations with Germany appeared vital to China. Japan’s threatening stance against the plan and concern about creating another point of friction with it in west China presumably also played a part in Chiang Kai-Shek’s decision.
Ultimately, the plan to settle Jews in China wasn’t carried out, and an opportunity to save many from their grim fate in Europe was missed.
The document claimed that the U.S. and British governments had not given the Jews sufficient help. In contrast, the Chinese city Shanghai had granted them vital shelter. But now, with that city inundated with refugees, there was a need to distribute those taken in around various places in China.