#AsiaNow Speaks with Taomo Zhou

Taomo Zhou is Assistant Professor of History, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and author of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War, published by Cornell University Press and winner of the 2021 AAS Harry J. Benda Prize Honorable Mention.

Cover of Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War, by Taomo Zhou

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

What happens when geostrategic collaborations between states intersect with ethnic tensions? In response to this question, my book examines how two of the world’s most populous countries interacted between 1945 and 1967, when the concept of citizenship was contested, political loyalty was in question, national identity was fluid, and the boundaries of political mobilization were blurred. Even though China and Indonesia do not share geographical borders, the existence of 2.5 million ethnic Chinese in Indonesia—many of whom had economic influence but an unclear citizenship status—gave rise to a porous social frontier. Through their everyday social, political and economic practices, “ordinary” Chinese diaspora influenced bilateral diplomacy. Their life experiences were shaped by but also helped shape the trajectory of governmental relations.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I was studying International Relations at Peking University when the Chinese Foreign Ministry declassified thousands of documents between 2006 and 2008, including materials related to China’s diplomatic interactions with Indonesia shortly before the 1965-1966 anti-communist campaign across the Indonesian archipelago. The campaign escalated into one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, comparable to the mass violence that occurred in Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Did Beijing try to export communist revolution to Indonesia? Was the hostility against the Chinese Indonesians a fitting retribution for Beijing’s attempt to engineer a communist coup in Indonesia? I started the research for this book hoping to solve these mysteries in the political drama of Cold War Asia-Pacific.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

The book is based on my PhD dissertation and I feel that I wrote the dissertation in the “wrong” way. Contrary to the “right way” of narrowing down to a specific topic after thorough training in historiography and methodology, I stumbled upon a treasure trove of materials at the very beginning but struggled to make these sources meaningful to the broader intellectual community. My biggest challenge has been how to make the stories about China and Indonesia relevant to non-specialists.

May I say that nothing turned out easier than I expected? ☺ Every step in the publishing process takes up twice as much time as I originally planned. Kudos to all published authors as well as the behind-the-scenes heroes—the editors and marketing teams!

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

Indonesian President Sukarno received traditional Chinese medical treatments for his kidney problems in 1964 and early 1965. He seemed to have enjoyed acupuncture and tended to overdose on the herbal pills tailor-made for him by doctors from China. His conditions improved—the acupuncture and herbs seemed to have worked!

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

I was greatly inspired by Meredith Oyen’s The Diplomacy of Migration: Transnational Lives and the Making of U.S.-Chinese Relations in the Cold War (Cornell University Press, 2015) and Madeline Hsu’s Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China (Stanford University Press, 200) and Professor Hsu’s more recent book The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton University Press, 2015). All these wonderful works elegantly weave together the bottom-up narratives about the migrants on the ground and the top-down narratives about high politics.

I would recommend my colleague Chien-Wen Kung’s forthcoming book about the Chinese in the Philippines, Diasporic Cold War Warriors (Cornell University Press).

What are you working on now?

Having grown up in a migrant family in Shenzhen, I am developing a new research project on the transformation of the city. Located immediately north of Hong Kong, Shenzhen is China’s first and most successful Special Economic Zone and is often described as China’s “window to the world.” I hope to write a globalized history of Shenzhen, situated in the context of the proliferation of Export Processing Zones and free ports across Asia in the 1960s and 1970s and grounded in everyday realities about bordered spaces and the confrontations and compromises they occasioned. I have a forthcoming article with the Journal of Asian Studies on Shenzhen in the 1960s, entitled “Leveraging Liminality: The Border Town of Bao’an and the Origins of China’s Reform and Opening.”

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday