In Case You Missed It: They Chose China

In the opening scenes of Shuibo Wang’s 2005 documentary, “They Chose China,” American soldiers dressed in the long, padded winter coats of the Chinese military cluster around a microphone to explain the international threat posed by McCarthy’s witch hunts and U.S. intolerance for freedom and democracy. The documentary tells the story of these twenty-one American soldiers, held as POWs by the Chinese during the Korean War, who refused repatriation after the 1953 armistice.

Through a mix of archival footage, Chinese and American TV clips, and contemporary interviews with one of the few surviving defectors, Wang tries to unearth why the young men chose to stay in China, attend university, and work as factory workers, farmers, truck drivers, and
government propagandists. All but one of the men returned to the U.S. prior to the Cultural Revolution. (The one who stayed, James Veneris, lived out his life as a factory worker in Shandong, his fellow workers protecting him from persecution during the Cultural Revolution.)

Wang attempts to counter the argument that the men had been brainwashed by the Communist government (these soldiers were among the first tangible cases in U.S. media of the “
phenomenon), instead presenting the men as “dissidents.” However, it becomes clear over the course of the movie that each of the men made the choice to stay for different reasons. Clarence Adams, a black soldier from Memphis, speaks of escaping from the racial discrimination and inequality in the United States, others seemed excited about the adventure of living in China, and others appear to have truly committed to socialism, maintaining their political beliefs even after returning to the U.S.

China buffs will find most interesting the footage Wang dug up from the POW camps—including film of the camp-wide “Olympic Games” prisoners organized—and clips of the soldiers explaining why they chose to stay in China. The film is rather hard to track down in the U.S. unless your local university or public library has a copy; it is not currently available through either Netflix or Blockbuster.


FOARP said...

There was also one Brit., Andrew Condron, who was still around last I checked, but nobody bothers talking to him. Good thing too, they were a pack of traitors, whatever excuses they may make.

Jeremiah said...


Thanks for the review, I'd really like to see if I can find a copy.

I'm not sure if he's mentioned in the documentary, but I have always been intrigued by Robert F. Williams. Williams was an African-American civil rights activist who lived in China during the Cultural Revolution. Fascinating story.

Kate Merkel-Hess said...

He's not mentioned in the film (thanks for the link to your piece on him--I missed it last year somehow), but there are references to (and some photos of) the 1950s and 1960s international community in Beijing. Anyone aware of writing on this subject?

Matthias Merkel Hess said...

Wow—sounds like a fascinating documentary.

Kenneth Pomeranz said...

Just a footnote. I met James Veneris in 1985 in Jinan, and he didn't seem at all like the sort of person you'd expect to take an unusual political stand; very low-key and almost shy. Aside from a few comments about how happy he was that US-China relations had warmed up, he steered the discussion away form politics. From the vantage point of 2008 what's striking about the conversation (or at least what I remember of it) is how starved he was for news about American pop culture -- something he clearly missed and had been unable to get any real access to for years. How times have changed -- I wonder where on the globe you could be that cut off from american pop culture today.

Anonymous said...

message for foarp,andrew condron died a few years ago,and he was not a traitor you have no prove of this I know, a relative.

Beverley said...

To anonymous,
I am writing a book on Western residents in China during the Mao era which includes a discussion of Andrew Condron. I would very much like to get in touch with a relative.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous,
I am writing a book on Western residents in China during the Mao era including a discussion of Andrew Condron. I would very much like to know what he did after he returned from China with his wife and son, and would be delighted to make contact with a relative.

Simon said...

for Anonymous. I am making a documentary film about the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett. He was goof friend Andrew Condron, and I have copies of some correspondence between them that may interest you. I can be reach via: snasht AT gmail dot comuirwtksd

andysm8te said...

foarp; you are soooo wrong! People have always talked to Andrew Condron. I'm a relative of his by marriage, but didn't know all he'd been through when I first met him.

You must be very young. Andy Condron was the most honest human being I have ever met in my entire life. Painfully so.

I have the feeling that you'll say otherwise; but then, you never met him, and I did, and treasured the man; and he never made any excuses to me. What's your excuse for going off half-cocked?

shuibo said...

I'm Shuibo Wang, the filmmaker of They Chose China. The film can be watched on Youtoube now. I couldn't find a way to contact Mr. Andrew Condron when I was working on the film. He is a great man! Please send my regards to his family.

Beverley Hooper said...

Dear Shuibo Wang,
I'm not sure of exactly when you made your film - but Andrew Condron died in 1996. I very much enjoyed your film. I am writing a chapter on the POWs for my book on Western residents in China during the Mao era and wonder whether I could get in touch with you (or if you could get in touch with me). My email address is b.j.hooper@sheffield.ac.uk
Beverley Hooper

Jon Howlett said...

This documentary looks really interesting, I studied Condron's story for my BA dissertation several years ago and got a very favourable impression of the man.

It is sad that these men are still treated with the 'pack of traitors' mentality they met from the Daily Mail at the time.

Condron was given a free choice whether to stay or to go home, there was no treachery in that, and numerous fellow POWs came out to testify to his good character.