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Forthcoming THE HIJACKED WAR: The Story of Chinese POWs in the Korean War | By David Cheng Chang

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020. xxi, 477 pp. (Maps, tables, figures.) US$40.00, cloth. ISBN 9781503604605.

In the last two years of the Korean War, a major disagreement arose between US delegates and Chinese and North Korean delegates during the tortuous armistice talks at Panmunjom, which centred primarily on the repatriation of Chinese prisoners of war (POWs). As two-thirds of approximately 21,000 Chinese POWs refused repatriation to Communist China and “defected” to go to Taiwan, notwithstanding the fact that only two were indigenous Taiwanese, Beijing demanded the complete repatriation of all Chinese POWs to save face. In contrast, Washington insisted on voluntary POW repatriation in order to defend their freedoms and rights. Consequently, the Korean War dragged on for another two years, with the tragic loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. This has long been the widespread understanding of the protracted armistice negotiation of the Korean War. Those evincing a keen interest in the war may have also heard another plausible interpretation of the extraordinary choice of the 14,000 Chinese POWs: most of them were former Nationalist soldiers who had been forcibly dispatched to the war as cannon fodder, and once they became POWs, they sought a chance to be sent to Taiwan.

However, this interpretation, according to Hijacked War by David Cheng Chang, is mere “historical fiction” fabricated by a propaganda coup by Washington and Taipei, whereas the reality has long been “virtually forgotten by all belligerent countries, politicians, and scholars alike”—a phenomenon he calls “collective amnesia” (10, 16). Basing his research extensively on newly unearthed archival documents from the US, mainland China, and Taiwan, as well as on personal interviews with 84 former Korean War POWs, Chang points out that the Chinese POWs’ decision to reject repatriation was by no means voluntary—a position that clearly contradicts the long-held interpretation. Instead, Chang argues that the POWs’ decisions stemmed from imprudent US policies. Without due consideration of the far-reaching consequences, American policy makers, owing to “deep-rooted arrogance toward the Chinese people and their ignorance of the Chinese Communists” (372), inadvertently adopted policies that encouraged the anti-Communist POWs’ domination of the Chinese POW camps, unwittingly allowing them to hijack the war at the expense of 12,300 Americans, over 90,000 Chinese soldiers, and at least 140,000 North Korean civilians.

This book encompasses 16 chapters. Chapters 1 to 3 explore the individual journeys of Chinese POWs, starting from the Chinese Civil War until their participation in the Korean War. By zeroing in on their pre-Korean War experiences, the author adroitly demonstrates that neither a Nationalist affiliation nor their class backgrounds were decisive factors in predetermining Chinese POWs’ ideological propensities or repatriation choices. Chapters 4 to 7 discuss the battlefield situation of the Korean War from the onset of the war to the debacle of the Chinese Fifth Offensive, with a special focus on individual stories of both captured and defected Chinese POWs. Chang’s meticulous scrutiny of the US prisoner re-indoctrination program in chapter 6 is particularly noteworthy. According to him, the US covertly carried out a rigorous brainwashing program, the goal of which was to convert prisoners into “avowed anti-Communists” and whose instructors were pro-Nationalist POWs (128). Also, because of the shortage of Mandarin-speaking Americans, the teachers and interpreters were hired from Taiwan, despite the fact that some of them were “Chiang Kai-shek’s Gestapos” (136). Consequently, a nexus was formed among prisoners, interpreters, and Taipei, enabling Nationalists to infiltrate Chinese prison camps and to stimulate “pro-Nationalist, anti-repatriation sentiment” among the POWs (203). In chapters 8 and 10, the author focuses on POW camps to see how the re-indoctrination program influenced Chinese POWs. He argues that the program enabled some 3,000 Chinese anti-Communist POWs to dominate the prison camps, especially Compounds 72 and 86, which accommodated around 80 percent of all Chinese POWs, while others, regardless of being Communist or neutral, had frequently been exposed to their coercion, gang-beating, forcible tattooing with anti-Communist slogans, torture, and even murder, which was so brutal that the camp was described as a “living hell” when prisoners were screened concerning their repatriation choices in April 1952 (249). Based on these observations, the author concludes that out of trepidation, many Chinese POWs “opted to go along with the dominant faction” to meet their “practical and immediate needs, namely food, shelter, and physical safety,” and thus producing a skewed response to the question of repatriation choice (14, 199). The remaining chapters address events after the Chinese POWs’ repatriation decision. Chapters 11 to 14 depict Chinese pro-Communist POWs’ continuous commitment to the Communist cause, including self-mutilation to remove anti-Communist tattoos and struggles against the prison camp authorities such as the October 1 Massacre. Chapter 15 insists that the US, in violation of international law, had forcibly drafted hundreds of Chinese POWs as spy agents and forced them to undertake deadly intelligence missions by crossing enemy lines. The book ends with a brief observation of the different post-Korean War treatment of POWs in mainland China and Taiwan.

By carefully weaving together fragmented evidence and reexamining POW camps, David Cheng Chang offers an intriguing alternative explanation for the skewed anti-repatriation decision on the part of Chinese POWs and its impact on the Korean War. One regrettable aspect is that the linkage between Beijing and Chinese POWs in the prison camps remains unexamined in the book. Given that there was a nexus established between Chinese and North Korean POWs and Panmunjom, and that Larry Wu-tai Chin, a Chinese translator who served in the US Army during the war, is alleged to have supplied Beijing with information on Chinese POWs, it was also plausible that Chinese POWs were not under a complete information blockade and that Beijing’s hand might have also infiltrated the prison camp, as did Taipei’s. Certainly, not all scholars may agree with Chang’s provocative views. Yet, they may also find it difficult to fully rebut his claim, which is based on more than a decade of dedication to the topic. Hijacked War is no doubt an excellent contribution to Korean War POW studies. Those interested in the Korean War and POWs will find it very inspiring and worth reading.

Son Daekwon