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Idriss Fofana, Labor Migration as Civilizing Mission: The Great War and Elite Support for Overseas Labor Migration in China and French Senegal, 1870-1918, Panel Session at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference (Mar. 18, 2023).

Abstract: This paper explores the converging roots of mobilization for World War I in China and French West Africa. It traces mobilization in both regions to growing state and elite support for labor emigration starting in the late 1870s. For more than a century, southern China and the Senegal River Basin had provided contract laborers for Western enterprises. As Western powers sought to exploit resources across the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific in the late nineteenth century, they turned once again to Chinese and West African migrant labor. Although state officials and elites in both regions had opposed foreign labor recruitment due to reports of abuses, starting in the late 1870s and 1880s, they increasingly supported foreign recruitment and labor colonization schemes. Both Chinese and West African elites began touting the achievements of Chinese and West African laborers who built infrastructure and cultivated reclaimed land overseas as contributing to a global “civilizing mission.” These elites—including merchants, intellectuals, officials and leaders of migrant communities—claimed the achievements of migrant laborers as those of Chinese and French West African society, thereby defending the status of their home regions in a global “civilizational” hierarchy. The Qing and French imperial states thus assumed growing responsibility for laborers, treating them as instruments of state policy. This shift in the relationship between migrant laborers and their home nations lay the ground for China and French West Africa to support the Allied war effort by sending laborers to Europe during World War I.