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Chinese Indentured Labor as "New Slavery":

Perspectives from South Africa and China


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This project engages with debates concerning “new slavery,” particularly as they relate to the deployment of Chinese indentured labor in early 1900s South Africa. The concept of “new slavery” was initially metaphorically used by British abolitionists to describe the conditions of Indian indentured laborers, whose demand rose in the colonies that had emancipated their slave populations. This term was soon extended to the Chinese laborers, who were indentured to the gold mining industry in South Africa when the Transvaal Colony was annexed by Britain after the Anglo-Boer or South African War of 1899-1902. The war created opportunities for African laborers to seek other livelihood options, and many chose to stay away from the gold mines during the period of reconstruction. The industry’s subsequent urgent demand for cheap, unskilled labor was framed as both a South African and imperial problem. As an imperial problem, the choice of Chinese indentured laborers as a stopgap to the labor shortage was widely contested, involving the British Commonwealth countries (e.g., Australia and New Zealand) as well as different constituencies in Britain and South Africa. “New slavery” and, also, “Chinese slavery” were concepts that were used by those, such as the abolitionists and labor unionists who, for different reasons, opposed deploying Chinese indentured laborers in the Transvaal. These debates and the afterlife of the concept of “new slavery” since the indentured labor system was officially abolished by the British government in 1917 are well documented in English sources. But, Chinese sources and views of the Chinese people on “new slavery” and/or “Chinese slavery” have not yet been investigated. This project draws inspiration from Rebecca Karl’s 2002 study, pointing out how a small but influential group of Chinese intellectuals, in collaboration with those in the diaspora, looked out at the world in the early 20th century to learn lessons that could be used to mobilize everyday people to oppose the Qing government or Manchu ruler. South Africa was one site of observation/learning, and slavery as well as race relations were among the knowledges that informed their anti-imperialist vision. This project, then, extends Karl’s study, asking whether the group of Chinese intellectuals encountered “new slavery” and/or “Chinese slavery,” particularly when they were drawing lessons from South Africa? If so, what were the views of both or either concepts? Was “new slavery” used as a metaphor similar to slavery, adapted to deepen the sense of Chineseness and inequality experienced by the Han people under Manchu rule? What new meaning did “new slavery” gain in their transmission to a “Chinese” context, where the people were already engaged in revolution? Answers to these questions will be sought through archival research in Taiwan, the UK, and South Africa and through ethnographic fieldwork in Shandong Province (China), where the majority of the Chinese indentured laborers were recruited from.

This Research Unit is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation