Combatting Human Trafficking during Republican China

Written by Bonny Ling.

Image credit: Delegation Chinose 1920, the photo collection of the Total Digital Access of the League of Nations Archives, public domain

One of the most interesting chapters in the history of modern China and international law is the vibrant and dynamic engagement of the Republican Chinese government with the League of Nations, the intergovernmental precursor to the United Nations, to address the exploitation of women for prostitution, known then as the “traffic in women.” It is an overlooked prologue that provides the historical context for efforts by successive governments on both sides of the Strait to combat exploitation. This issue remains just as relevant today as it did close to a century ago.

The term ‘human trafficking’ 販運人口 (or sometimes sub-optimally translated into Chinese as 販賣人口) as it is now understood after the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons by the UN General Assembly in 2000 addresses a wide range of exploitative purposes. These include, “at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (article 3(a)). However, in the early 20th century, trafficking mostly referred to European women and girls trafficked into prostitution. They were also widely known as victims of “white slavery,” a term which drew from the opprobrium of the African slave trade.

The League of Nations

In the 1920s, the phenomenon of human trafficking underwent several changes in terminology, as “white slavery” gave way to the term “traffic” as a more inclusive way of referring to the phenomenon beyond the forced prostitution of European women. The expansion of the scope from European female victims had a significant impact on trafficking in the Chinese context. The League of Nations would devote considerable resources to examine the traffic in women and children in East Asia by the 1930s. The trafficking in Chinese women for prostitution at this time represented the single largest group of victims of transnational traffic in Asia.

Early activities spearheaded by the League of Nations to examine and combat the trafficking in women and children were marked by two prominent international conferences: the 1921 International Conference on Traffic in Women and Children, held in Geneva; and the 1937 Conference of Central Authorities in Eastern Countries that took place in Bandoeng of the Dutch East Indies to focus specifically on the traffic situation in Asia. In the intervening years of these two conferences, diplomatic engagement by the Republican Chinese government evolved from terse replies to official requests for information from the League of Nations secretariat to active political engagement on the question of the traffic situation in China.

In 1937, the Republican government sent an eight-membered delegation to attend the Conference at Bandoeng. This level of high-level diplomatic representative carried extra significance because this was at a time of heavy domestic turmoil with the government primarily concerned with Japanese territorial incursions in Manchuria. Therefore, the government’s engagement was indicative of the weight given to the traffic in women and children — if not on the merits of the issue itself — than on the projection of modernity and state responsibility that such a robust engagement would represent internationally.

Diplomatic Manoeuvring

At Bandoeng, the Republican Chinese delegation demonstrated that it had not only learnt to engage on the substance of the issue of international traffic, but its political manoeuvring had grown sophisticated and skilled. Delegates shifted from focusing on exploitation and human misery to the extraterritoriality of international settlements in China. They did this by stating that it was, in fact, the practice of extraterritoriality that drove the traffic in Chinese women. In doing so, the delegation tried to minimise the negativities associated with the country, seen as the epicentre of traffic in women in Asia. Furthermore, it also promoted the government’s overarching political objective of rescinding extraterritoriality.

This political narrative was delivered on the second day of the conference by adviser Ho Chin Chen for the Republican Chinese government:

[T]he Chinese authorities, which were so active in the interior, had no power in the Chinese territories under foreign jurisdiction. It was known that at Shanghai, for instance, the greatest number of prostitutes were found in the international settlement and the French concession…It was known that…traffic was carried on particularly in the places which were not under the authority of the Chinese government.

(League of Nations, Traffic in Women and Children: Conference of Central Authorities in Eastern Countries in Bandoeng (Java), Minutes of Meetings, 1937)

This political representation, however, was not wholly accurate. Scholarly works on prostitution in Shanghai during the early to mid-twentieth century found that similar to the contemporary situation of trafficking in China, domestic traffic and exploitation were more extensive than transnational cases. Therefore, these political manoeuvres sought to mask the true extensiveness of China’s trafficking problem in women and children, but. Still, in so doing, it also introduced dissonance in the way the issue was understood on both domestic and international fronts.

International and Domestic Gap

From the outset of the Bandoeng Conference, the delegation consistently represented China as a rapidly changing and modernising country that was committed to the international system and its rules. Moreover, its engagement with the League of Nations on traffic in women and children was a key part of Republican China’s global participation.

This was seen in the fact that China was an early supporter in Asia of a host of League of Nations’ treaties that addressed the traffic situation. These included the 1922 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children and the 1933 International Convention on the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age. Moreover, the Republican era also saw China ratifying the 1926 Slavery Convention in 1937.

Yet, a closer examination of the domestic laws of Republican China reveals that substantial gaps existed between international legal standards of the time and China’s domestic law on offences related to the traffic in women and children. These were not just problems of imprecise definitions but involved serious gaps in how these offences were understood internationally and domestically.

Domestic laws under the Republican era gave women greater legal status than previously under the Qing Code. However, they also could have the unintended consequence of rendering women more vulnerable to crimes and discrimination. One example focuses on Article 298 of the 1935 Criminal Code, which did not criminalise the act of selling an adult woman, where she was not initially abducted by force.

This meant that the procurement of women by covert means, such as by threats, coercion, fraud, or deception, were excluded from the scope of criminalisation of the traffic in women for marriage or other gainful purposes. The law simply did not recognise the possibility of adult women having been led away and sold without overwhelming force. This was then a significant divergence from the international definition of traffic in women at this time, which addressed both the physical and covert means of recruitment.

Commitment to Internationalism

Diplomatic posturing regarding the international traffic in women and children by the Republican Chinese government is not surprising. There is nothing new about international representations being inconsistent with what happens domestically. The more challenging road is always the implementation of international ideals on the ground, where they concretely affect lives, families, and local communities. Combatting the traffic in women and children during the tenure of the League of Nations was no different.

Looking back, what was particularly noteworthy about this aspect of Republican China’s diplomatic efforts on the issue of traffic was that it took place at a time of growing domestic disillusionment with the League of Nations, especially in its inability to resolve breaches of peace and security in Abyssinia and Manchuria. The disappointment was gradual but remarkable, given the early idealism of the Republican Chinese diplomats to fully join the international system.

Despite this, there was no move from the Republican Chinese government to completely disengage internationally. Even after the League of Nations’ dissolution, Republican China remained an integral part of international efforts to establish the UN by signing the UN Charter in 1945. From 1947 to 1948, the indispensable Republican Chinese diplomat Peng-chun Chang (張彭春) mediated differences that arose during the drafting of the bedrock Universal Declaration of Human Rights and saw its successful adoption by the UN General Assembly in December 1948. However, a mere year later, the bitter Chinese Civil War brought a seismic change. The Chinese Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 and ended the Republican Era on the Chinese Mainland.

Unfinished Anti-Trafficking Projects

Today, the government in Taiwan sees itself as the successor of the Republican Chinese era, during which a vibrant and dynamic intellectual exchange of ideas with the West underpinned the age of openness and internationalisation in modern Chinese history.

The irony of contemporary global politics is that Taiwan is now shut out of the UN system. Yet, it is undeniable that anti-trafficking projects continue in Taiwan and across the Strait, where both sets of skilled officials manoeuvre this space in which issues of appalling human exploitation are represented, discussed, and contested. If this is not done in the standard intergovernmental fora for Taiwan, then certainly in the fluid bilateral, civil society and global public relation space, where Taiwan has come under increasing notoriety concerning the labour situation of migrant workers.

Reflecting on Republican China’s legacy in addressing the traffic in women and children, the lesson that remains, a century later, is not that these problems persisting on human misery will disappear, that international attention will wane. It simply will not.

Rather, the lesson is that China’s anti-trafficking project is unfinished. The baton passes to the present. It is very much a challenge of our time to find novel ways of engaging internationally and shifting the needle on how human trafficking in all its forms can be properly understood and addressed with our collective, unwavering commitment.

Bonny Ling 凌怡華 is an Advisory Board Member of the international civil society organisation Human Rights at Sea that advocates for better human rights protection in the maritime sector; and Research Fellow of the Institute for Business and Human Rights. She is an independent researcher on international human rights and consults as a legal analyst on responsible business conduct with a focus on Asia. She writes on migration, business responsibilities and international relations and development.

Taiwan Studies Programme presents a talk by Dr Bonny Ling, Stigma and Hate in the Time of COVID: Migrant Rights in the Asia-Pacific, on 18th November 2021 (12:30-15:00)

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