The unresolved refugee crisis in Europe is a political hot potato. A Hong Kong politician recently proposed setting up a camp in Shenzhen to hold refugees who seek asylum in Hong Kong. With frequent wars, floods and famines in its long history, China is no stranger to refugees.

Build a detention camp in Shenzhen for Hong Kong’s asylum seekers: former security chief Regina Ip

In the final years of the Eastern Han dynasty (AD25-220), when the country had been split up by warlords, the powerful Cao Cao sprung a surprise attack in AD208 on the peripatetic Liu Bei, who was then based in the tiny territory of Xinye (in present-day Henan province). Knowing that his troops were no match for Cao’s massive army and that he had no time to flee, Liu made the counter-intuitive decision to uproot the entire population of Xinye and lead them out of the county.

Leading the massive numbers of refugees slowed Liu down, but such was his love for his people that he couldn’t bring himself to abandon them to the cruel tyranny of Cao. This is the traditional interpretation of the event, buttressed by centuries of fictional accounts that lionised Liu as the paragon of benevolence and virtue. His real intentions might have been more insidious. The large numbers of refugees might have been used as human shields, among whom Liu, the key members of his entourage and his troops hid as they made their way out of Cao’s siege. The people of Xinye who perished were collateral damage.