The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Racial Discrimination in the United States


“Money monopoly,” said Denis Kearney in a 1878 address,  “has reached its grandest proportions. Here, in San Francisco, the palace of the millionaire looms up above the hovel of the starving poor with as wide a contrast as anywhere on earth. To add to our misery and despair, a bloated aristocracy has sent to China—the greatest and oldest despotism in the world—for a cheap working slave. It rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the Labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white Labor.”

Denis Kearney (1847–1907) was a leader of the American labour movement, a demagogue who blamed Chinese immigrants for the economic woes of the Californian working class.

What is a demagogue? According to Reinhard H. Luthin, it is “a politician skilled in oratory, flattery, and invective; evasive in discussing vital issues; promising everything to everybody; appealing to the passions rather than the reason of the public; and arousing racial, religious, and class prejudices” (Reinhard H. Luthin: American Demagogues: Twentieth Century, 1954, p. 3).

Kearney did not create anti-Chinese sentiment. The fear and prejudices against this particular group of immigrants were strong among white people in the United States, so strong that one can find them in numerous speeches by politicians throughout the 19th and early 20th century, as well as in literature.

One fascinating example of anti-Chinese feelings in the US is the science fiction short story by American author Jack London entitled “The Unparalleled Invasion“. In this dystopian story he articulated the fear of the “white man” being overrun by hordes of Chinese, of Western civilization and power being undermined by Asia. He imagined a future in which China, after learning from Japan how to develop economically and technologically, would pose a threat to European Empires in the East and outnumber “white people”. London wrote:

China’s swift and remarkable rise was due, perhaps more than to anything else, to the superlative quality of her labour. The Chinese was the perfect type of industry. He had always been that. For sheer ability to work no worker in the world could compare with him. Work was the breath of his nostrils. It was to him what wandering and fighting in far lands and spiritual adventure had been to other peoples. Liberty, to him, epitomized itself in access to the means of toil. To till the soil and labour interminably was all he asked of life and the powers that be. And the awakening of China had given its vast population not merely free and unlimited access to the means of toil, but access to the highest and most scientific machine-means of toil. China rejuvenescent! It was but a step to China rampant. She discovered a new pride in herself and a will of her own…

This passage shows one core element of “sinophobia” (fear of the Chinese): the Chinese people’s capacity for hard work and self-sacrifice, which appeared to the “white man” almost inhuman. Let us now  examine another excerpt: 

The real danger lay in the fecundity of her loins, and it was in 1970 that the first cry of alarm was raised. For some time all territories adjacent to China had been grumbling at Chinese immigration; but now it suddenly came home to the world that China’s population was 500,000,000. She had increased by a hundred millions since her awakening. Burchaldter called attention to the fact that there were more Chinese in existence than white-skinned people.

Here we can observe a second theme of London’s apocalyptic vision: the Chinese birthrates were much higher than that of Western people. China was so populous that the very survival of the white race was under threat. Perhaps influenced by Charles Darwin‘s theories, London portrayed a world in which fertility produced racial superiority by virtue of sheer numbers:

French Indo-China had been overrun, filled up, by Chinese immigrants. France called a halt. The Chinese wave flowed on…China’s expansion, in all land directions, went on apace. Siam was made part of the Empire, and, in spite of all that England could do, Burma and the Malay Peninsula were overrun; while all along the long south boundary of Siberia, Russia was pressed severely by China’s advancing hordes. The process was simple.

According to the underlying rationale of London’s story, the racial and political expansion of China could be stopped only by military intervention. As a result, he envisioned what we must call a genocide of the whole Chinese population and a resettlement of the country by Western people. A coalition of Western countries waged biological warfare against China, exterminating the entire population:

During all the summer and fall of 1976 China was an inferno. There was no eluding the microscopic projectiles that sought out the remotest hiding-places. The hundreds of millions of dead remained unburied and the germs multiplied themselves, and, toward the last, millions died daily of starvation. Besides, starvation weakened the victims and destroyed their natural defences against the plagues. Cannibalism, murder, and madness reigned. And so perished China

[The invading troops] found China devastated, a howling wilderness through which wandered bands of wild dogs and desperate bandits who had survived. All survivors were put to death wherever found. And then began the great task, the sanitation of China. Five years and hundreds of millions of treasure were consumed, and then the world moved in – not in zones, as was the idea of Baron Albrecht, but heterogeneously, according to the democratic American programme. It was a vast and happy intermingling of nationalities that settled down in China in 1982 and the years that followed – a tremendous and successful experiment in cross-fertilization

This morbid vision of a “happy” genocide should not be dismissed as just a work of fiction. Not only because the 20th century became the century of genocides, but also because Jack London – regardless of whether he was a racist or was only portraying racism – was operating with real, existing fears and prejudices.

Many white people in the 19th and 20th feared to be overrun, outnumbered by “yellow” hordes, to lose jobs, wealth, power, and even racial purity, due to Asian expansion. On the one hand, white people believed to be superior and entitled to wealth and power; yet at the same time, such fears implied a belief in being inferior in terms of industriousness and birthrate.

A part of the American society believed that the Chinese were a threat, even though they had no facts to prove that that was the case. As a result, fears and prejudices guided legislators in passing discriminatory laws, in embracing and fostering the anger of people who considered the Chinese a threat.


Chapter I.

The Rise of Anti-Immigration Movements in the United States and the Chinese Question

The first wave of immigration from China to the United States occurred in the mid-19th century. It had mainly two causes. First, China’s economic and political decline, exacerbated by foreign aggression and civil wars. Second, the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), which attracted thousands of people from all over the world, including East Asia.

Until the end of the 18th century the standard of living in the Qing Empire was higher than that of Western Europe. For example, the average Chinese consumed more nonessential products such as sugar than their European counterparts. However, at the turn of the 19th century Western countries began to grow rapidly, leaving China’s economy far behind, a phenomenon that historians have called the “great divergence” (see: William T. Rowe: China’s Last Empire: The Great Qing, 2012, p. 149). The most striking problems that China faced were population growth, government maladministration, a monetary crisis, and Western aggression.

In 1400 China had about 100 million inhabitants. By the second half of the 19th century, its population had swelled to about 450 million (ibid., p. 150). Available farmland became scarce, and per capita acreage fell by 43%, which, in turn, resulted in lack of food and rising poverty (ibid.). Qing scholars were aware of the gravity of the problem. In 1799 Hong Liangji (1746–1809), a scholar-official from Changzhou, sent a letter to Emperor Jiaqing, complaining about overpopulation and the lack of proper state policies to address it. He wrote:

[I]n the matter of population, it may be noted that today’s population is five times as large as that of thirty years ago, ten times as large as that of sixty years ago, and not less than twenty times as large as that of one hundred years agoHowever, the amount [of available farmland and housing] has only doubled or, at the most, increased three to five times, while the population has grown ten to twenty times. 

The ruler and the ministers may make adjustments in the following ways: pursuing policies to ensure that no farmland will remain unused and that there will be no surplus labor. Migration of farmers to newly reclaimed land may be organized; heavy taxes may be reduced after a comparison is made between past and present tax rates. Extravagance in consumption may be prohibited; the wealthy household’s appropriation of the property of others may be suppressed. Should there be floods, drought, and plagues, grain in the granaries may be made available, and all the funds in the government treasury may be used for relief … (quoted in: William Theodore de Bary: Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume 2: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century: vol. 2, pp. 174-175).

Emperor Jiaqing, instead of heeding Hong’s advice, was incensed at his criticism and banned him to Xinjiang province (ibid., p. 173). The issue of population growth was thus never properly addressed.

The second problem that plagued China was maladministration. The 18th century had been a time of prosperity and stability under the reign of three emperors: Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1796). Towards the end of Qianlong’s rule, however, corruption began to spread, which the following emperors were unable to keep under control. Above all, the malpractice of selling posts in the bureaucracy and the rise of palace officials proved to be disastrous in times of crisis (Rowe 2012, pp. 153-155).

Civil wars also contributed to the weakening of the Qing state. The most severe anti-dynastic rebellions were the White Lotus uprising that lasted from 1796 to 1804, and the Taiping Rebellion, which lasted from 1850 to 1864 and claimed around 20 million lives. Hong Liangji had warned the emperor of anti-dynastic movements caused, as he believed, by corruption in the administration. In the aforementioned letter to Emperor Jiaqing, Hong  wrote:

The [county officials] have betrayed the laws of the Son of Heaven [i.e. the Emperor] and exhausted the resources of the common people. From what I have heard, although there are heterodox sects in such places as Yichang in Hubei and Dazhou in Sichuan … The county officials were not able to prevent the spread of heterodoxy by exerting good influences on the people, and when sectarianism spread, the officials would use the pretext of investigating heterodoxy to make demands on the people and threaten their lives, until the people joined the rebels. I would humbly suggest that in locations where heterodox rebellions have arisen, inquiry must be made into the causes of conflict, to see whether the rebellion was precipitated by the officials, who should be punished according to the facts of each case (quoted in: de Bary, pp. 178-179).

As we have seen, the emperor dismissed Hong’s suggestions. Rebellious movements continued to spread throughout the 19th century, without any effective countermeasures on the part of the authorities except for costly and bloody military suppression.

The third cause of emigration was a monetary crisis due to scarcity of silver. This was brought about not only by a global reduction in silver output, but also by Western commercial penetration on the Chinese market. For most of the 18th century, China had a trade surplus with the rest of the world. In particular, British merchants purchased Chinese tea, yet they had nothing to offer which the Chinese were willing to buy. In order to reduce the trade deficit with China, British merchants ultimately found one commodity Chinese consumers craved: opium.

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Although opium was illegal in China, the British smuggled it into the country, often with the help of corrupt Qing officials. As a result, the trade imbalance between China and Britain began to shift in the latter’s favour. At the beginning of the 19th century China still received 26,000,000 silver dollars from foreign trade. In the 1840s, however, the country had a trade deficit of 34,000,000 silver dollars (Robert J. Antony: Unruly People: Crime, Community and State in Late Imperial South China, 2016, p. 23).

At the end of 1838, Emperor Daoguang appointed Lin Zexu, a proponent of a tough line against foreigners, as Imperial Commissioner in Guangdong (Michael Dillon: China: A Modern History, 2012, p. 47). Lin immediately informed Chinese and Western merchants that the sale of opium was “illegal and immoral”, and that whoever smuggled opium would be executed. He forced the closing of opium factories, besieged the British settlement, and arrested British subjects.

Lin’s hard-line stance did not pay off. The intervention of British ships led to the outbreak of the First Opium War (ibid., pp. 48-51). The Qing Empire was swiftly defeated and forced to accept humiliating peace terms. The Treaty of Nanjing, signed on 29 August, 1842 (ibid., p. 61) was the first of the so-called “unequal treaties” that infringed upon China’s sovereign rights.

Trade deficit, silver scarcity and war sparked off a credit crisis that resulted in the bankruptcy of Chinese banks, price deflation, a reduction in manufacturing and agricultural output. While the wealthy classes withstood the economic downturn relatively well, the poor were hardly hit (Antony 2016, pp. 23-24; see Rowe 2012, p. 158, and de Bary, p. 200).

The fifth main issue facing China was, as mentioned above, foreign aggression. Beijing’s defeat in the First Opium War not only harmed China’s economy, but it also damaged the prestige of the Qing dynasty, precipitating its decline. Chinese officials were worried about foreign invasion. In order to help the state to counter foreign invasion, Wei Yuan, a scholar from Hunan province, wrote the Illustrated Gazetteer of the Maritime Countries, the first attempt by a Chinese intellectual to understand the geography and the political and military situation of Western countries. His purpose was, as he declared in the preface of the book:

to show how to use barbarians to fight barbarians, how to make the barbarians pacify one another [to our advantage], and how to employ the techniques of the barbarians in order to bring the barbarians under control (quoted in: de Bary, pp. 209-210).

However, the Qing Empire did not succeed in reforming itself and in adopting Western technology to defeat Western powers. The decline of the Manchu dynasty continued throughout the 19th century and culminated in the 1911 revolution. As the situation in China deteriorated, a growing number of Chinese people sought their fortune somewhere else. The United States was a particularly attractive place for Chinese immigrants due to its liberal institutions, its abundant natural resources, and the California Gold Rush.

The First Chinese Immigrants

Chinese immigration to the United States began in 1851 when 2,176 Chinese arrived in San Francisco (Sidney L. Gulick: American Democracy and Asiatic Citizenship, 1918, p. 33) and continued throughout the next three decades. Most immigrants came from the Pearl River Delta area, in the southern part of China’s Guangdong province. Many of them went to California to work as miners. Those who didn’t find jobs related to the gold-mining industry worked in railroad construction, in farms, fisheries, shops, plantations, factories etc. By the early 1880s the Chinese population of the United States amounted to around 300,000 people (Judy H. Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds.: Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, 2006, p. 1).

The Chinese arrived in a society where racism and violence were widespread. B. Shrieke, writing in the 1930s, painted a bleak picture of race relations on the Pacific Coast:

In California the extermination of the Indians began in 1849 and continued until well on into the seventies. One of the early settlers wrote concerning events in which he participated at the late date of August 15, 1865:

“I had often argued with Good regarding the disposition of the Indians. He believed in killing every man or well-grown boy, but in leaving the women unmolested in their mountain retreats. It was plain to me that we must also get rid of the women.”

Another settler wrote of an occurrence in April 1871:

“The next day the whites trail the Indians with dogs, corner them in a cave, and kill about thirty. In the cave with the men were some Indian children. Kingsley could not bear to kill children with his fifty-six caliber rifle. ‘It tore them up so bad.’ So he did it with his thirty-eight caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.” (B. Schrieke: Alien Americans: A Study of Race Relations, 1936, p. 7).

Of course, not all whites behaved that way. Yet the fact that racist ideology existed can hardly be disputed in light both of the way Indians and African-Americans were treated, and of the discriminatory anti-Chinese legislation that was enacted by various state legislatures, as we shall see later.

In the early period of the Gold Rush, demand for low-skilled labour was high, and the Chinese found ample opportunities for employment. They were indeed so successful and swift in filling the vacuum on the labour market that they soon monopolized entire industries such as the production of footwear, shirts, brooms, underwear, cigars, tinware, tallow, the packing of pork and the drying of fish. By 1865, the Chinese made up 80% of the workforce in California’s woollen mills, and by 1870 they accounted for 90% of California’s agricultural labour.

Many Chinese also became businessmen. In 1866 half of the cigar factories in San Francisco were in Chinese hands, with a workforce of 2,000 people, compared with only 200 “whites” employed in that industry (ibid., pp. 1-10). The Chinese were also widely employed in railroad construction. For instance, of the 4,000 workers that by the summer of 1868 had built the transcontinental railroad, two-thirds were Chinese.

Chinese immigration was facilitated by American policy in the Far East. In 1861 Abraham Lincoln appointed Anson Burlingame as minister to the Qing Empire. Burlingame sought cordial relations with China, and as a result, the Beijing government asked him to accompany a Chinese diplomatic mission to Europe and the United States (John Soennichsen: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 2011, p. 54). The efforts to improve relations between Beijing and Washington culminated in a treaty signed in 1868, commonly referred to as the Burlingame Treaty.

The treaty affirmed “the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects, respectively for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents”. The treaty made it clear that the US government welcomed Chinese subjects and was determined to protect their rights. “Chinese subjects visiting or residing in the United States shall enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and exemptions in respect to travel or residence, as may there be enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.”

The paradox of this progressive international agreement lay in the fact that anti-Chinese feelings in the United States were on the rise and many white Americans were asking for a drastic limitation on the number of Chinese admitted into the country.

The Rise of Anti-Chinese Sentiment in the United States

Chinese immigrants in the United States faced from the start widespread racism, xenophobia and institutional discrimination. Their physical appearance, their clothes and long queues, as well as their religion and customs, singled them out (Schrieke 1936, p. 8). As early as 1852 the state of California passed a Foreign Miners’ Tax that was enforced mostly against Chinese miners (an earlier version of the tax, enacted in 1850, aimed at Mexican miners). Between 1852 and 1870, when it was repealed, the Foreign Miners’ Tax generated about half of California’s state revenues (see Making of the American West: People and Perspectives, ed. Peter Mancall and Benjamin Heber Johnson, 2007, p. 165).

While the Chinese were working honestly and paying taxes, many white Americans disliked the newcomers and wanted them out of the United States. Prejudices may not have had disastrous consequences if they had not been embraced and propagated by politicians who, by drawing on existing xenophobia, justified and reinforced it.

One of the earliest advocates of anti-Chinese legislation was John Bigler, the 3rd Governor of California. In April 1852 he sent a special message to the California legislature. Bigler’s words may sound somewhat familiar today:

I am deeply impressed with the conviction that, in order to enhance the prosperity and to preserve the tranquility of the State, measures must be adopted to check this tide of Asiatic immigration, and to prevent the exportation by them of the precious metal which they dig up from our soil without charge and without assuming any of the obligations imposed upon citizens. I allude particularly to a class of Asiatics known as “Coolies,” who are sent here, as I am assured, and as is generally believed, under contracts to work in our mines for a term: and who, at the expiration of the term, return to their native country.

l am sensible that a proposition to restrict international intercourse, or to check the immigration of even Asiatics, would appear to conflict with the long cherished and benevolent policy of our Government. The Government has opened its paternal arms to “the oppressed of all nations,” and it has offered them an asylum and a shelter from the iron rigor of despotism.

A question around which there has been thrown some doubt, is whether Asiatics could with safety be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights of citizens in our courts of justice. If they are ignorant of the solemn character of the oath or affirmation in the form prescribed by the Constitution and statutes, or if they are indifferent to the solemn obligation which an oath imposes to speak the truth, it would be unwise to receive them as jurors, or to permit them to practice in courts of law, more especially in cases affecting the rights of others than Asiatics.

It is not officially known to this Department whether those persons are here in a state of voluntary or involuntary servitude. But if it be ascertained that their emigration and servitude is voluntary, I am still of the opinion that the Legislature may enact laws to prevent or discourage shipments of vast bodies of Coolies into this State. I am convinced that there is nothing in the Federal Constitution which forbids the enactment of such laws.

From a brief analysis of Bigler’s speech we may easily conclude that: 1) he described the Chinese in abstract terms as a group, advocating prejudices such as that they were slaves (a common misconception at the time). He did not cite relevant statistics and did not mention any specific case; 2) he admitted the fact that he did not have any specific knowledge of facts (“…as I am assured, and as is generally believed”, “It is not officially known to this Department whether …”), yet his ignorance did not prevent him from advocating anti-Chinese legislation; 3) he falsely assumed that all Chinese had no capacity or desire to understand US laws and to contribute to American society as citizens.

The idea that the Chinese were all ignorant, passive or indifferent is contradicted by the reactions of Chinese immigrants who tried to make their voice and case heard, but often without success. One of the first documents of political engagement of a Chinese immigrant is a letter written by Norman Asing in response to Governor Bigler’s message.

The letter, entitled To His Excellency Governor Bigler, was published by The Daily Alta California, one of California’s major newspapers at the time, on April 25, 1852:

I am a Chinaman, a republican, and a lover of free institutions; am much attached to the principles of the government of the United States, and therefore take the liberty of addressing you as the chief of the government of this State. Your official position gives you a great opportunity of good or evil. Your opinions through a message to a legislative body have weight, and perhaps none more so with the people, for the effects of your late message have been thus far to prejudice the public mind against my people, to enable those who wait the opportunity to hunt them down, and rob them of the rewards of their toil. You may not have meant that this should be the case, but you can see what will be the result of your propositions.

I am not much acquainted with your logic, that by excluding population from this State you enhance its wealth. I have always considered that population was wealth; particularly a population of producers, of men who by the labor of their hands or intellect, enrich the warehouses or the granaries of the country with the products of nature and art (Norman Asing: “To His Excellency Governor Bigler (1852),” in: Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, ed. Judy H. Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, 2006, pp. 9 -10).

Norman Asing, born Sang Yuen, came from the Pearl River Delta region. In the 1820s he went to the Portuguese colony of Macau, and from there he travelled to Europe and the United States. Asing is an example of Chinese assimilation. He was active as a merchant in Charleston, South Carolina, opened a restaurant in San Francisco and worked as a foreign consul. He converted to Christianity and became a naturalized US citizen. As the letter shows, he could read and write English (ibid., p. 9). Yet the personal stories of Norman Asing and other Chinese were ignored by the general public. As a minority, the Chinese could hardly influence public opinion.

The attacks against the Chinese community didn’t just come from politicians, but also from the class of working people with whom the Chinese were in direct competition. Numerous anti-Chinese riots occurred in the second half of the 19th century. On October 6, 2011, the US Senate passed a resolution expressing “the regret of the Senate for the passage of discriminatory laws against the Chinese in America”. The resolution listed off several “violent assaults” including “the 1887 Snake River Massacre in Oregon, at which 31 Chinese miners were killed” and “numerous other incidents, including attacks on Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, San Francisco, Tacoma, and Los Angeles”.

The United States was marred by such a degree of xenophobic tensions that, as Leon Whipple noted, in 1855 the native Protestant Know-Nothing Party mobbed Irish Catholics in the East, and in California Irish Know-Nothings mobbed the ‘heathen Chinee’ for “stealing their country and their jobs” (Leon Whipple: The Story of Civil Liberty in the United States, 1927, p. 198).

The Panic of 1873 and the Start of the Anti-Chinese Movement

The situation of the Chinese community in the United States worsened dramatically in the 1870s. Although anti-Chinese sentiment had existed in the preceding two decades, the outbreak of a major economic crisis, as is often the case, exacerbated xenophobia and favoured the rise of populist leaders who were looking for scapegoats.The Panic of 1873, a financial crash that triggered a long depression, paved the way for populist demands for exclusion and discrimination of the Chinese.

The Panic of 1873 started as a banking crisis caused by speculation in the railroad sector. On September 19, 1873, a day that later became known as “Black Friday”, the New York Stock Exchange announced the collapse of Jay Cooke and Company, a bank that had heavily invested in the construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The failure of Cooke and Company brought about that of other banks. The stock market crashed, igniting a panic.

The economic downturn that followed lasted for five years. 3 million people nationwide lost their jobs. Unemployment rose to 30%, while another 40% of the population worked only seven months a year. Around 20,000 businesses failed, including a quarter of the country’s railroads. Average wages fell by 25%, but wages of railroad workers declined even more, by 35%. The Panic of 1873 was known as the “Great Depression” until it was overshadowed by the economic crisis of 1929 (see Quentin R. Skrabec Jr: The 100 Most Important American Financial Crises, 2014, pp. 90-92).

Unemployment and underemployment intensified the competition among low-skilled workers. As a result, the presence of Chinese became intolerable to many “white” people who believed that they should be given precedence over immigrants of an “inferior” race. The idea of the Chinese “coolies” who stole American jobs by working for extremely low wages, on which a white person could not survive, became widespread and potent. The Chinese were considered “immoral and unclean, biologically inferior, and perhaps most important, unassimilable” (Claiming America: Constructing Chinese American Identities during the Exclusion Era, ed. K. Scott Wong and Sucheng Chan, 1998, p. 5).

This view of the Chinese was so common that in 1876 the California Senate sent a memorial to the US Congress, warning of the danger posed by the existence of the Chinese community:

The male element of this population, where not criminal, comes into a painful competition with the most needy and most deserving of our people — those who are engaged, or entitled to be engaged, in industrial pursuits in our midst. The common laborer, the farm hand, the shoemaker, the cigar maker, the domestic male and female, and workmen of all descriptions, find their various occupations monopolized by Chinese labor, employed at a compensation upon which white labor cannot possibly exist (quoted in: ibid.)

Anti-Chinese sentiment was enshrined in Article II of the 1880 California Constitution, which, using the most racist and offensive language, excluded the Chinese from becoming electors:

No native of China, no idiot, insane person, or person convicted of any infamous crime, and no person hereafter convicted of the embezzlement or misappropriation of public money, shall ever exercise the privileges of an elector in this State (quoted in: ibid., p. 7).

As we shall see in the following article, the rise of anti-Chinese feelings would lead to the emergence of xenophobic political movements demanding the complete stop of Chinese immigration to the United States.

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Chapter II.

The Rise of Anti-Immigration Movements in the United States and the Chinese Question

Despite being a country of immigrants, in the 19th century the United States experienced the rise of various anti-immigration political movements that sought to curb the influx of aliens into the country on religious, racial or cultural grounds.

When the Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from Great Britain in 1776, their population was approximately 2.5 million (United States Bureau Of The Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945, 1949, p. 25). The majority of the settlers were of English ancestry, although there was already in colonial times a high degree of diversity.

The New England Colonies were the most homogeneous area, with around 70% of its population being of English extraction. There were small continental European, Scots-Irish, African and other minorities. The Middle Colonies were more diverse: 40.6% English, 15.2% German, 6.7% Scots, 6.3% Dutch, 6.5% Scots-Irish, 3.4% Irish, 12.4% African, among others. In the Southern Colonies people of English stock were only a minority (37.4%), because they were outnumbered by the descendants of the slaves brought to the colonies from Africa (39.2%) (see: Vincent N. Parrillo: Diversity in America, 2015, pp. 45-49). Although by 1840 the US population had grown to around 17 million, immigration was still moderate and the ethnic composition of the country remained almost unaltered.

This began to change in the mid-19th century. In 1844, 75,000 immigrants arrived in the United States. In 1847, 234,000 people entered the country, and in 1851 the figure was 380,000. In less than a decade around 2.75 million people immigrated to the US, most of them from Ireland and Germany. A large number of them were Roman Catholics (see: United States. Bureau Of The Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, 1789-1945, 1949, p. 25; and David H. Bennett: The Party of Fear: From Nativist Movements to the New Right in American History, 1988, p. 62).

The immigration of thousands of people from Europe caused alarm in a country where the majority of the citizens were Protestant and English-speaking. The newcomers stood out due to their religion, language, culture and customs. Many Americans felt overrun, fearing that their country would change radically. Moreover, aliens created demonstrable social and economic issues.

Nativism in the United States

The presence of thousands of aliens led almost immediately to the emergence of nativist movements suspicious of and opposed to immigrants. Nativists thought that immigrants were ignorant of the Republican form of government, that they brought crime, chaos, diseases and social evils. Some believed, without much evidence, that the Catholics were ‘papists’ who were more loyal to the Vatican than to the US government. American workers feared job competition from cheap European labour.

Nativists demanded that the government restrict immigration, extend naturalization to 21 years, make it more difficult for foreigners to vote and hold political offices, disband immigrant militias, and even teach Protestant values to children of Catholics (Michael Kazin, Rebecca Edwards, and Adam Rothman, eds.: The Princeton Encyclopedia of American Political History, vol. 2, 2010, p. 24).

Some of the fears of native-born Americans were backed up by facts. According to the 1850 census, foreigners made up 50% of poor people in the United States although they represented only 10% of the total population (Bennett 1988, p. 72). As is often the case, immigrants escaped from poverty or persecution in their homeland, and upon arriving in their host country, they were destitute and had little social or political connections. Such conditions made them more susceptible to pauperism and crime.

One of the biggest issue that angered nativists was the financial burden foreigners represented. As a matter of fact, poor aliens were more likely than native-born to rely on charity or welfare to survive. In 1852, of the 300,992 foreign-born people who lived in New York, 141,992 received financial benefits. The cost for the public was enormous. Empire State spent 1 million dollars to support 40,000 foreign-born and 19,000 native-born destitute (ibid., p. 73).

Immigrants were also responsible for a spike in crimes. Of the persons arrested in New York for criminal offences in 1850, 55% were Irish, 10% German, and 23% native-born (ibid., p. 73). Xenophobia resulted in the formation of anti-foreign societies and political parties, the most influential of which was the American Party, commonly referred to as the Know-Nothing Party.

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The Rise of the Know-Nothings

On a December evening of 1844 thirteen men met in a New York City home. They founded the American Brotherhood, a secret society that opposed immigration and sought to preserve what they saw as the “real” American identity and form of government. One month later the society was renamed the Order of United Americans (Bennett 1988, p. 105). One of these men was Thomas R. Whitney, a publisher and author who had formerly worked as a jeweler, engraver and watchmaker. In a book released in 1856, entitled A Defence of the American Policy as opposed to the Encroachments of Foreign Influence, and especially to the Interference of the Papacy, he laid out the ideology of the movement:

The distinguishing features of our form of government, as adapted to the happiness and prosperity of its individual citizens … have conspired to pour upon our shores a vast and still increasing tide of people, fleeing from the oppressions, restraints, and the burdens of life … The loftiest intelligence and the meanest intellect – the man of wealth, and the starving millions – the statesman, the philosopher, the idiot, the criminal, and the insane … in one common flood, have cast their destinies and their opinions, their worth and their mendicity, their morals and their vices, their superstitions, their traditions, and their prejudices, upon the social bosom of America …

To believe that a mass so crude and incongruous, so remote from the spirit, the ideas, and the customs of America, can be made to harmonize readily with the new element into which it is cast, is, to say the least, unnatural … A single savage may be readily civilized; a whole tribe never … European immigration is unquestionably the “Grecian horse” of the American Republic …

Probably the most accurate data on which an opinion can be based is the enormous disproportion of European criminals in the United States, as compared with those of American birth; a majority of all the capital crimes, the felonies, larcenies, and misdemeanors being committed by foreigners, whereas the foreign population of the country is only about ‘one-seventh’ of the whole …

I feel justified in classifying “paupers” as one of the great subdivisions of immigration at the present day … They are not merely useless, they are worse than useless – they are a moral sore on the body politic – a disease, both moral and physical – a leprosy – a contamination; and the American authorities and people are made to be their servants, their physicians, their nurses, their hewers of wood and drawers of water!

Immigration has produced a discord of moral and political sentiment in the land … it has brought infidelity, and a disregard for … hab8[its of religion and morality … it has implanted the papal influence, that poisonous foe of civil and religious liberty – it has invaded the time-honored customs of our ancestors … it has inflicted an unequal competition on the industry of the people … These are facts, and, with such facts before us, the duties of the American statesman, in his dealing with immigration, are no longer problematic. They are manifest (A Defence of the American Policy, pp. 164-166 and 181-187).

Whitney’s worldview contains the same elements that can be found in most xenophobic movements. He imagined a pure, homogeneous native community of free, civilized men which was threatened by the arrival of individuals who, by the very fact of being different, posed a threat to the host country. His arguments were based on generalizations and assumptions. In the face of real social and economic challenges, he didn’t try to provide social and economic analyses, but simply declared all foreigners too different to be assimilated, treacherous, ignorant, uncivilized. He turned prejudice into theory, personal dislike into truth, suspicion into fact.

The Order of United Americans was a secret society which admitted as members only white, native, Protestant males. Its main political objective was to preserve the Protestant, Anglo-Saxon identity of the US, and to defend it against foreign influence, especially that of the Papacy. The secret nature of the society derived, as Whitney explained, from the fact that there was a foreign conspiracy against the “true American”, which demanded conspiratorial methods. In the early 1850s, the Order of United Americans merged with another secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, and with the American Party.

Because their members were instructed to say “I know nothing” if they were asked by outsiders about their organization, their detractors began calling them “Know-Nothings”. The name stuck (see Bennett 1988, pp.107-108). However, secrecy didn’t allow them to have a real impact on the country’s government. Therefore, the American Party dropped secrecy and made a foray into official politics.

In the mid-1850s, the party experienced a meteoric rise, promising to curb immigration, protect the Union from separatism, and clean up the government. In the 1855 elections, the party performed well in Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania. Its membership rose to 1 million people (Kazin, Edwards, and Rothman 2010, p. 24). Between 1854 and 1856, they won the majority in eight state legislatures, returned seven governors, eight US senators and 104 members of the House of Representatives. However, they never managed to control the Congress or to have a presidential candidate elected. This prevented them from implementing the most radical aspects of their agenda (ibid., p. 25).

More pressing issues, such as the slave question that later led to the secession of the southern states, as well as the gradual integration of the immigrant population, led to the marginalization of the most radical fringe of the nativist movement, which by the 1860s had lost its momentum. However, while nativism against white aliens subsided, xenophobia towards non-whites continued to increase. As the largest non-white immigrant group, the Chinese became victims of a new wave of political nativism.

Anti-Chinese Political Movements

Growing anti-Chinese sentiment and the Panic of 1873 led to the rise of populist movements that demanded the complete stop of Chinese immigration to the United States. Interestingly enough, anti-Chinese xenophobia was stoked by many second-generation or foreign-born whites, who believed in a white, Christian America. Non-Anglo-Saxon white immigrants opposed the narrow definition of American identity advanced by the Know-Nothings and other early nativist movements. They broadened the concept of “Americanness” so as to comprise European civilization and race as a whole.

Two of the most influential advocates of Chinese exclusion were Denis Kearney and James D. Phelan; the first was born in Ireland, while the latter was Irish-American (John Soennichsen: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 2011, p. 51, and Erika Lee: At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943, 2003, p. 37).

Information about Denis Kearney’s life is scant. What is certain is that he was born in Oakmount, County Cork, Ireland, and that he arrived in the United States in 1868. In 1872 he set up a successful freight hauling or draying business in San Francisco. He acquired US citizenship through marriage with an American woman. When the Panic of 1873 broke out, he became involved in the labour movements that sprung up due to unemployment and wage decreases. In 1877 he was appointed secretary of a workers’ organization that later evolved into the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) (see Soennichsen 2011, p. 51).

Kearney was a populist who targeted two main enemies of the working classes: large business conglomerates and the Chinese community. He accused the capitalists of being greedy and exploiting the working classes; and he blamed the Chinese for “stealing” the jobs to which the “white man” was entitled. His speeches were filled with common anti-Chinese stereotypes of the time (ibid., p. 52). The following speech, which he held in 1878, illustrates Kearney’s ideology:

The capitalistic thief and land pirate of California, instead of employing the poor white man of that beautiful and golden State, send across to Asia, the oldest despotism on earth, and there contracting with a band of leprous Chinese pirates, brought them to California, and now uses them as a knife to cut the throats of honest laboring men in that State. A Chinaman will live on rice and rats. (Laughter.) They will sleep one hundred in a room that one white man wants for his wife and family (Denis Kearney: Speeches of Dennis Kearney, Labor Champion, 1878).

His fiery populist rhetoric endeared Kearney to his supporters, and the fact that he was arrested several times only enhanced his reputation as a champion of the working people. The WPC became influential in California, achieving electoral success and taking part in the second California constitutional convention of 1878-1879, where the party represented one-third of the delegates.

One of the main objectives of the WPC was to abrogate the Burlingame Treaty which allowed Chinese people to easily immigrate to and work in the United States (Soennicshen 2011, p. 53). Many white people believed that the Chinese not only could not be assimilated due to their race and culture, but also that in times of economic depression they posed a threat to the white working class. By eliminating the Chinese community, the white labourers hoped to find better job opportunities, and to live in a better society free from “uncivilized” elements (ibid., p. 54).

Anti-Chinese sentiment was so strong that in 1901 a Chinese Exclusion Convention was organized in San Franciso, in which, according to a local newspaper, around 3,000 “delegates from all parts of California” took part (San Francisco Call, November 22, 1901, p. 1). One of the speakers at the Convention was James D. Phelan (1861 – 1930), a United States Senator and mayor of San Francisco from 1897 to 1902. The San Francisco Call quoted Phelan as saying:

We are the warders of the Golden Gate; we must stand here forever in the pathway of the Orient, and if there is any danger or trial it is for us to sound the alarm. I regard the Chinese question as a race question. I regard it as an international question; and above and over all, a question involving the preservation of our civilization. The State of California, with its seven hundred miles of seaboard facing the Orient, is entitled to speak on this question for the people of the United States. We have had a long familiarity with this question, and I contend that it is only those who are ignorant of its true meaning and significance who would hesitate to endorse the position which California has always taken as a steadfast and patriotic opponent to the further immigration of Chinese coolies.

Another speaker at the Convention, one A. Sbarboro, an Italian-American, laid out the vision of a “white” America, reinforcing the rejection of early American nativism on the part of new European or second-generation European immigrants:

[W]e want the Englishman, who brings with him capital, industry and enterprise; the Irish who build and populate our cities; the Frenchmen, with his vivacity and love of liberty; the industrious and thrifty Italians, who cultivate the fruit, olives, and vines—who come with poetry and music from the classic land of Virgil; the Teutonic race, strong, patient, and frugal; the Swedes, Slavs, and Belgians; we want all good people from all parts of Europe. To these, Mr. Chairman, we should never close our doors (quoted in: Lee 2003, p. 37). 

As we have seen, anti-immigration movements were based on generalizations and assumptions, on an obsession with “national character”, racial and cultural homogeneity. Ultimately, the changing patterns of xenophobia only serve to prove the irrational, arbitrary nature of such movements. Nevertheless, anti-Chinese sentiment was so widespread that it influenced legislation for almost a century. Throughout the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, state legislatures and Congress passed a wide range of laws that discriminated against the Chinese and stopped immigration from China.

Chapter III.

Anti-Chinese Legislation and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was only the culmination of a long series of laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants. Most of these laws were enacted in California, where anti-Chinese sentiment was particularly strong.

The Foreign Miners’ Tax, already mentioned in Chapter I, was passed in 1850 and was renewed in 1852, 1853 and 1855. The 1852 Bond Act required all Chinese who arrived in California to post a 500 dollar bond. A 1854 ruling by the California Supreme Court affirmed that the Chinese could not testify as witnesses in court against white citizens, which meant that whites could commit crimes against Chinese without any Chinese being able to testify against them.

A 1858 Act completely barred immigration of “Chinese and Mongols”. In some areas of California children of Chinese were not allowed to attend public schools unless parents of white children consented. In San Francisco the Chinese were denied entry to the City Hospital,  were forbidden from using carrying poles to peddle goods, from owning land, from using firecrackers and ceremonial gongs, and from wearing long queues.

A 1870 Act prohibited Chinese males from entering California unless they could prove to be of “good character”. Even the size of shrimp nets used by Chinese was reduced in order to exclude them from this business, until in 1880 the “Fishing Act” completely prohibited the Chinese from working in the fish industries (see John Soennichsen: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, 2011, p. 60). It must be noted that anti-Chinese legislation was in violation of the 1868 Burlingame Treaty.

In spite of the harshness of such laws, anti-Chinese lobbies wanted more. Their aim was an outright ban of all Chinese immigration to the United States. After the outbreak of the 1873 Panic, the economic situation provided racists and xenophobes with a rational argument against the Chinese. Already in 1879 the US government tried to revise the Burlingame Treaty in order to limit Chinese immigration.

The US ambassador to China, George Seward, suggested to Beijing that “criminals, lewd women, diseased people and contract laborers” should be excluded from the provisions of the Burlingame Treaty. China did not raise objections to this proposal for fear that Washington might abrogate the treaty unilaterally.

Under Seward’s successor, James Angell, the US government pushed for a treaty that allowed the American side broad discretion in determining who belonged to those four classes of people. The Angell Treaty of 1880 de facto allowed US officials to decide arbitrarily at entry ports who should be admitted and who should be rejected. The new treaty can thus be considered a further step towards a ban of all Chinese (ibid., pp. 62-65).

Anti-Chinese groups continued to push for harsher legislation. At the end of 1881 the US Congress passed a bill that suspended all Chinese immigration for 20 years. President Chester A. Arthur vetoed the bill and sent it back to Congress. He explained his objections thus:

The treaty commonly known as the Burlingame treaty conferred upon Chinese subjects the right of voluntary emigration to the United States for the purposes of curiosity or trade or as permanent residents, and was in all respects reciprocal as to citizens of the United States in China. It gave to the voluntary emigrant coming to the United States the right to travel there or to reside there, with all the privileges, immunities, or exemptions enjoyed by the citizens or subjects of the most favored nation.

Under the operation of this treaty it was found that the institutions of the United States and the character of its people and their means of obtaining a livelihood might be seriously affected by the unrestricted introduction of Chinese labor. Congress attempted to alleviate this condition by legislation, but the act which it passed proved to be in violation of our treaty obligations, and, being returned by the President with his objections, failed to become a law.

A nation is justified in repudiating its treaty obligations only when they are in conflict with great paramount interests. Even then all possible reasonable means for modifying or changing those obligations by mutual agreement should be exhausted before resorting to the supreme fight of refusal to comply with them.

These rules have governed the United States in their past intercourse with other powers as one of the family of nations. I am persuaded that if Congress can feel that this act violates the faith of the nation as pledged to China it will concur with me in rejecting this particular mode of regulating Chinese immigration, and will endeavor to find another which shall meet the expectations of the people of the United States without coming in conflict with the rights of China.

Congress then passed another bill, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese labourers to the United States for 10 instead of 20 years. The Chinese Exclusion Act, approved on May 6, 1882, was signed by Arthur. The Act stipulated that:

from and after the expiration of ninety days next after the passage of this act, and until the expiration of ten years next after the passage, of this act, the coming of Chinese laborers to the United States be, and the same hereby, suspended; and during such suspension it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come, or, having so come after the expiration of said ninety days, to remain within the United States.

The term “Chinese laborer” did not refer only to certain categories of low-skilled workers. The Act clarified that “the words ‘Chinese laborers ‘, wherever used in this act shall be construed to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining”. This meant that all Chinese were banned except for diplomats, students, teachers, merchants, and tourists (see Judy H. Yung, Gordon H. Chang, and Him Mark Lai, eds.: Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present, 2006, p. 4). Moreover, Section 14 stated that “no State court or court of the United States” shall “admit Chinese to citizenship”.

The Act achieved the result anti-Chinese groups had hoped for. In 1882, while the law was still not in effect, 39,000 Chinese entered the United States. The numbers began to drop the following year. In 1883, 8,031 Chinese entered the country. In 1884 it was just 279. In the period between 1885 and 1889, only a total of 216 Chinese were admitted (Soennichsen 2011, p. 68).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended in 1884. In order to curb Chinese immigration even further, the amendment required Chinese already living in the United States to apply for a “re-entry certificate” if they planned to leave the country and intended to return. In 1888 the Scott Act re-affirmed the Chinese Exclusion Act and added a complete ban on Chinese labourers returning from abroad, annulling the previously issued “re-entry certificates” (Michael Lemay and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds., U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History, 1999, p. 44). The aim of anti-Chinese laws seems to have been not only to limit immigration, but to reduce the number of Chinese living in the US as much as possible.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was extended for another 10 years by the Geary Act of 1892. The Act also provided that Chinese labourers living in the US needed to apply for certificates that proved they had worked in the US prior to 1892. An “affidavit of at least one credible witness”, who had to be white, was necessary to obtain the certificate. Those who did not possess such a certificate could be detained and deported by the government (Hiroshi Motomura: Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States, 2006, p. 34). In 1902 the Chinese Exclusion Act became permanent, cementing for decades to come the racial policies of the United States and isolating even further the American-Chinese community.

Reactions of the Chinese Community to Exclusion

In 1882 the Chinese residing in the United States were suddenly cut off from their native country and often from their family members, who could not join them. Even travelling back to China could pose a serious threat to their re-entry. The Chinese were accused of being unable to assimilate, yet it was the law of the land which made it impossible for them to assimilate and to be treated as equal.

However, the Chinese were far from passive and docile in dealing with racism and xenophobia. Many Chinese understood the principles of the American Constitution, the rights that it granted to all men regardless of race and religion, and they tried to defend themselves by using the laws of the country, although they were often unsuccessful. Many legal cases of Chinese immigrants challenging US laws shaped American jurisprudence.

In the landmark case Chae Chan Ping vs United States (1889) a Chinese labourer claimed to have been illegally prevented from re-entering the US. The Supreme Court explained the case in the following way:

The appellant is a subject of the Emperor of China, and a laborer by occupation. He resided at San Francisco, California, following his occupation, from sometime in 1875 until June 2, 1887, when he left for China on the steamship Gaelic, having in his possession a certificate in terms entitling him to return to the United States, bearing date on that day, duly issued to him by the collector of customs of the port of San Francisco …

On the 7th of September, 1888, the appellant, on his return to California, sailed from Hong Kong in the steamship Belgic, which arrived within the port of San Francisco on the 8th of October following. On his arrival, he presented to the proper custom house officers his certificate and demanded permission to land. The collector of the port refused the permit solely on the ground that under the Act of Congress approved October 1, 1888 [Geary Act], supplementary to the Restriction Acts of 1882 and 1884, the certificate had been annulled and his right to land abrogated, and he had been thereby forbidden again to enter the United States

The US Supreme Court upheld the exclusion acts and the detention of Chae Chan Ping on the following grounds:

The power of exclusion of foreigners being an incident of sovereignty belonging to the government of the United States as a part of those sovereign powers delegated by the Constitution, the right to its exercise at any time when, in the judgment of the government, the interests of the country require it, cannot be granted away or restrained on behalf of anyone …

Whatever license, therefore, Chinese laborers may have obtained, previous to the Act of October 1, 1888, to return to the United States after their departure is held at the will of the government, revocable at any time at its pleasure.

In the cases of United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) and Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), the US Supreme Court reaffirmed that all persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States and are protected by the law. This successful case prevented thousands of American-born Chinese from being deprived of their citizenship and their rights.

Another landmark case, Fong Yue Ting v. United States (1893), was caused by an act of civil disobedience staged by the Chinese community. After the enactment of the Geary Act, the Chinese Six Companies, an organization founded by Chinese in San Francisco, told the Chinese population not to apply for a certificate, as required, and challenge the law if enforced (Motomura 2006, p. 35). According to the Supreme Court ruling:

The right to exclude or to expel aliens, or any class of aliens, absolutely or upon certain conditions, in war or in peace, is an inherent and inalienable right of every sovereign nation.

In the United States, the power to exclude or to expel aliens is vested in the political departments of the National Government, and is to be regulated by treaty or by act of Congress, and to be executed by the executive authority according to the regulations so established, except so far as the Judicial Department is authorized by treaty or by statute, or is required by the Constitution, to intervene.

The Court rejected the claims of the plaintiffs and upheld the provisions of the Geary Act, following the so-called “plenary power doctrine”, according to which immigration is a prerogative of the legislative branch in which the judiciary should not interfere (see Motomura 2006, p. 35).

Many Chinese who had lived and worked in the United States for years, were incensed at the exclusion laws and the overt discrimination faced by the Chinese community.

Jee Gam, a Chinese immigrant from Guangdong province who converted to Christianity and became the first Chinese Congregational Pastor in the United States, bitterly criticized the exclusion laws:

I am a Chinaman and a Christian. I am not any less Chinese for being a follower of Christ. My love to Jesus has intensified rather than belittled my love for my native country. I am proud of China, for it is a great country. I admire her, for she has a wonderful future.

I am in some sense also an American, for I have lived in America almost twice as long as in China. I love this country. I teach my children who are native-born Americans to sing the National hymns. And just as I rejoice in whatever is honorable to America, and commend her example to my countrymen, so I am pained when unjust and oppressive laws are permitted to be placed upon her statute books. Such a law as the Geary Act seems to me to be one which dishonors America, as well as injures my countrymen and native land.

It dishonors America as a breaking of solemn pledges—for the Chinese were invited here by the Americans. Mr. Burlingame was one of the most prominent representatives of the U.S. who gave us this invitation.1 He assured China that a million Chinese laborers could find welcome and employment on the Pacific Coast alone. These invitations were endorsed by express treaties. China took these invitations and treaties in good faith.

Her people came, but not in such a number as need call forth the alarm of the Americans, for in the period of 40 years there were less than two hundred thousand Chinese that ever put their feet on America’s soil. But the laborers from Europe and especially from Ireland, who have no more right to be in America than the Chinese have, and perhaps much less, began to kick, and demand that “the Chinese must go” (Jee Gam: “The Geary Act – From the Standpoint of a Christian Chinese (1892)” in: Yung, Chang, and Lai, 2006, p. 87). 

Another critic of the US’s exclusion policies was Wu Tingfang, a Chinese politician and Chinese ambassador to the US from 1907 to 1909. In his memoirs Wu wrote:

The more substantial cause for dissatisfaction with the United States is, I grieve to say, her Chinese exclusion policy. As long as her discriminating laws against the Chinese remain in force a blot must remain on her otherwise good name, and her relations with China, though cordial, cannot be perfect.

It is my belief that the gross injustice that has been inflicted upon the Chinese people by the harsh working of the exclusion law is not known to the large majority of the American people, for I am sure they would not allow the continuation of such hardships to be suffered by those who are their sincere friends. China does not wish special treatment, she only asks that her people shall be treated in the same way as the citizens or subjects of other countries. Will the great American nation still refuse to consent to this? (Tingfang Wu: America, Through the Spectacles of an Oriental Diplomat, Chapter 4).

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 during World War II. The Republic of China was an important ally of the United States in the fight against Japan, and Japanese propaganda exploited anti-Chinese laws in the US to undermine their alliance. Yet the Act repealing exclusion laws also set quotas for Chinese immigrants to the US, out of the same fear of the white population being overrun by Asians that had led to sinophobia in the late 19th century.

It was only in 2011 that the United States government, by a resolution of the Senate, acknowledged that “anti-Chinese legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act” was “incompatible with the basic founding principles recognized in the Declaration of Independence that all persons are created equal”. The Senate expressed its regret for “passing 6 decades of legislation directly targeting the Chinese people for physical and political exclusion” and for “the wrongs committed against Chinese and American citizens of Chinese descent who suffered under these discriminatory laws”. It further reaffirmed “its commitment to preserving the same civil rights and constitutional protections for people of Chinese or other Asian descent in the United States accorded to all others, regardless of their race or ethnicity”.

If you want to support our website, you might be interested in taking a look at our translations of Chinese literature on Amazon. Currently available is ‘Craven A and other Stories’ by Mu Shiying. Thank you for your support!


One thought on “The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and Racial Discrimination in the United States

  1. History is full of examples of racism and violence. However, modern American culture is very different than the culture that existed 150, 100 or even 50 years ago. (Chinese culture has also changed in 50 years.) Unless you have lived in the United States it is impossible to describe to anyone the culture of this extremely diverse population. Articles that spread the idea that America is a deeply racist country that is generally hostile towards Asians are simply wrong. They are also destructive. Asian people generally have a very high standard of living in the United States. Much higher, in fact, than most people in China.


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