Rethinking Asian Mobilities
Socialist Migration and Post-Socialist Repatriation of Vietnamese Contract Workers in East Germany
Author: Christina Schwenkel
Vietnam's economic reforms have generated much praise for the country's rapid "opening" of its markets, as if the Vietnamese nation had previously existed in a state of isolation, closed to broader global influences and exchanges. Such discourses overlook the importance of transnational circulations of people, goods, technologies, and expertise during the socialist era that were vital to Vietnam's postwar national reconstruction and continue to play a role in post-socialist economic transformation today. This article traces the socialist pathways of labor migration between Vietnam and the former Soviet Bloc (specifically, East Germany) in the 1980s, mobilities that are generally absent in studies of contemporary export labor industries. Based on multi-sited ethnographic and archival research, the author follows Vietnamese workers first to the East German factories where they labored as "contract workers," and then through their subsequent return and reintegration into Vietnamese society after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These mobilities bespeak of an alternative history and formation of diasporic communities that are little acknowledged or addressed in literature on labor migrations, and yet are important to understanding emerging forms of stratification today in Vietnam. Moreover, an analysis of early non-capitalist experiences with overseas labor regimes in the 1980s provides insights into contemporary Vietnamese governance practices that promote – rather uncritically, similar to other "emerging countries" – export labor as a nation-building strategy to reduce endemic poverty and develop a late socialist country.