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Sailing to Socialism: The Anti-Chinese Crises in Indonesia and the People’s Republic of China's Repatriation Program, 1959-1967

Sat, March 18, 10:45am to 12:45pm, Sheraton Centre Toronto Hotel, Floor: Mezzanine, Norfolk


In Indonesia, the Chinese minority, which numbered around two and a half million in the mid-20th century, had been a source of indigenous feelings of economic envy. In 1959, aiming to undermine the Chinese presence in trade, the Indonesian government revoked the licenses of non-citizen ethnic Chinese to operate retail businesses in the countryside. In the face of this challenging situation, Beijing chose to send out a fleet to bring ethnic Chinese back to China. Approximately 200,000 ethnic Chinese boarded ships charted by Beijing heading to the People's Republic of China (PRC).

This paper demonstrates that during an era that was commonly perceived as an age of isolation for the PRC, these ocean liners dispatched by the PRC to Indonesia gave rise to a unique social space of transnational interactions. The everyday life on board was highly politicized, symbolizing a constant ideological struggle between the socialist doctrines of the PRC and the logics of capitalism that was omnipresent in the behaviors of the passengers, the foreign sailors, technicians, merchants and immigration officers. Moreover, these ships were important tools for public diplomacy and mobile propaganda platforms. It was in a sense a revolutionary "cram school" that would prepare the ethnic Chinese from Indonesia for the new political environment of socialist China. Based on the captains’ journals, the passengers' memoirs and oral history interviews with the migrants, this paper uses the ships' voyages as a pair of unique lens to study Chinese transnationalism in the post-1949 era.