Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 for China-US Relationships

Even though the US and China enjoy a cordial bilateral relationship today, their history is mired with conflict. Indeed, antagonism still exists in both country’s economic sectors, with China standing as the second-largest economy in the world (Skidmore, 2015). It is important to note that initially, Chinese migrants to the US in the 19th Century suffered the setback of racial discrimination (Molina, 2014). Indeed, the Gold Rush of 1849 in California attracted an unprecedentedly large number of Chinese laborers into the US. Some of the Chinese workers had gone to seek employment in the lucrative gold mines (Hooper & Batalova, 2015).

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In addition, the US transcontinental railroad construction saw an increase in the demand for labor, and the Chinese citizens provided readily available cheap manpower. Some Chinese migrants came as merchants who set up shops to serve the laborers while others acted as brokers in the labor market – they connected Chinese laborers with American companies in need of human capital (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). In the meantime, a crisis was looming; the local Caucasians were agitated by the influx of Asians into the country and competition in getting jobs. This essay considers how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 shaped US-China relations over the years. The essay reveals that the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 can be solely blamed for strained relations between China and the US to date.

Racial tensions that started piling up in the US initiated legislative action on Capitol Hill. Consequently, the anxieties among Native Americans were slowly being codified into law. Nevertheless, thousands of Asians were already settled in the country (Koehn, Yin, & Yin, 2015). However, they were banned from participating in the US political process. This implied that the only role of the Chinese citizens was to provide the highly needed low-cost human capital. It is the fear of competition by the white American frontier that made life even harder for the Chinese. Different incidences of xenophobia compelled the State Government of California to impose harsh restrictions on Chinese citizens. For example, their taxes were raised, they were denied educational opportunities, and immigration was discouraged by altering the due process (Fandl, 2014). Completion of the railroad construction in 1869 rendered most Chinese and other Asian immigrants jobless. Owing to the rising racial tensions in California, it was difficult for them to secure employment in other sectors dominated by the Native Americans (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). As a result, many Chinese immigrants moved further to the West Coast.

The Birth of the Chinese Exclusion Act

In 1868, the United States had signed the Burlingame Treaty with China. This bilateral trade treaty permitted the free movement of people and labor between the two countries. However, the influx of Chinese immigrants into the United States was high. Hence, Congress decided to put in place stringent immigration laws to control the number of immigrants entering the country (Ling & Austin, 2015). This also meant that the Burlingame Treaty was to be abolished. Consequently, Congress obtained the power to regulate or suspend the influx of Chinese laborers into the United States. In 1882, a bill was passed in Congress that shut down the immigration of Chinese citizens into the United States for 20 years (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). However, the then President of the United States – Chester A. Arthur – refused to assent to the bill, sighting that a shorter suspension period would work in the best interest of the country. As recorded by Hooper and Batalova (2015), another bill was passed that reduced the period to 10 years.

Despite concerns from the vulnerable Chinese community in the United States, the suspension period was extended to another decade in 1902. In 1924, Congress amended the Act to enforce a permanent ban on the immigration of Chinese citizens into the United States. Accordingly, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first-ever legislation that banned an entire specific ethnic group, race, or nationality group from entering the United States (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). The following sections of this paper give insight into the events that compelled the United States to abandon the Chinese Exclusion Act and the social, political, and economic activities of Chinese Americans thereafter.

Abandonment of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Token Immigration Policy

Despite the effective implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the number of Chinese children born in the United States had already surpassed that of immigrants by 1940. Within just a decade into the enactment of the Act, more than 20,000 had been born. As a result, the 5-year old became the largest population in Chinese American history (Ling & Austin, 2015). The Chinese Exclusion Act was officially repealed in 1943 after Congress had passed the Magnuson Act. Immediately, Chinese nationals who were already in the United States were granted the country’s citizenship (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). Historians have discovered that two important reasons compelled the US to repeal the discriminatory legislation.

First, China had played an important role as an ally of the US during World War II. This is although the Exclusion Act was still in effect. Hence, repealing the Act was seen by experts as an expression of gratitude to China (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). Second, the US repealed the Act to counter the increasing Japanese propaganda campaign aimed at discrediting the influence of the United States in the wider Asian region. Thus, it sent a message to the Japanese that the US was still strong in the region. According to (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). the US offered the Chinese Immigration token quota of 105 immigrants per year. This number, although small, brought an array of hope to Chinese nationals seeking to build their future in the land of limitless opportunities (Banerjee, 2014). The number of Chinese migrants to the US increased further with the enactment of the War Brides Act in 1945. This legislation allowed officers in the US Army to marry more than 6,000 Chinese women, who later became citizens by naturalization (Lyman, 1968). Hooper and Batalova (2015) indicate that more than 10,000 Chinese women had immigrated to the US just 8 years after Congress had passed the Act.

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Between 1945 and 1965, several other pieces of legislation were implemented in favor of Chinese immigration. For example, the Displaced Persons Act (1948), the Immigration and Naturalization Act (1952), the Refugee Relief Act (1953) all increased the number of Chinese citizens entering the US. The Displaced Persons Act and the Refugee Relief Act gave asylum to Chinese students, visitors, and sailors who had been stranded in the United States following the Chinese civil war back at home (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). The Immigration and Naturalization Act was like an amendment to the existing immigration policies because it put an end to racial barriers to immigration and prioritized the relatives of Chinese citizens in the country (Ling & Austin, 2015). Because of these laws, the Chinese population in the US was beginning to increase substantially. By the end of the 1950s, the number of Chinese immigrants had already reached half the total population of the community in the United States (Martin, 2015). The majority ignored the doctrines taught in Chinatowns and adapted to the American way of life.

Open Chinese Immigration (1965)

The 1962 Executive Order that permitted the immigration of citizens of the People’s Republic of China into the United States as parolees saw an influx of Chinese immigrants into the country. Within only three years, about 16000 people had immigrated to the US, with many of them being women. As noted by Hooper and Batalova (2015), it was easy for women to enter the US because they were welcomed as nonquota immigrants. The majority of them ended up becoming wives of American citizens, thereby gaining citizenship by naturalization (Banerjee, 2014). Nevertheless, the enactment of the 1965 Immigration Act permanently changed immigration laws and brought about racial equality in the US immigration system that is still in effect to date.

Unlike in the 1940s when the number of American-born Chinese was higher than that of the immigrants, the pattern was completely reversed by the Immigration Act of 1965 (Luk, 2017). In 1980, the population of foreign-born Chinese in the US comprised two-thirds of the entire population of Chinese Americans in the country (Douglas, Sáenz, & Murga, 2015). The Act was amended in 1981 to limit the number of immigrants from China to 20,000 people. Consequently, the number of Chinese immigrants to the United States had reached approximately 1.5 million by 1990. Owing to transformations in the US demographics and the ambiguous definition of race, Hooper, and Batalova (2015) submit that the exact number of Chinese immigrants currently in the country remains unknown. However, they add that the population of Chinese Americans lies within the range of 2.4 to 2.8 million, of which 64% are foreign-born. The following sections of this paper consider the social-economic aspects of the Chinese community in America after 1965.

The Current Socioeconomic Status of Chinese Americans

Following the abandonment of the Chinese Exclusion Act that had deemed prospects of the Chinese migrants to the United States, things began to turn around in their favor. The population of Chinese students had increased in the wake of the Chinese civil war. By 2000, the probability of attaining a degree was higher for the Chinese than for the Native whites (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). By extension, this meant that Chinese Americans were now better positioned to secure white-collar jobs. Even so, they suffered a setback from the stereotypes and racial prejudice that had existed right from their entry into the country (Molina, 2014). Meanwhile, white Americans were still given priority by employers. Therefore, the social and economic standing of Chinese Americans can be traced back to the period between 1882 and 1965.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act was assented to by the President in 1882, the Chinese in America faced the toughest period of racial prejudice and discrimination in their history. Due to the hostility from the whites emanating from the fear of competition for jobs, Chinatowns emerged (Lee, 2015). The Chinese insulated themselves in Chinatowns and engaged in economic activities that were despised by the Natives – mostly manual and casual work. In sum, historians attribute the improvement of the social and economic status of Chinese Americans to three factors.

First, the involvement of the United States in World War II created a drastic shortage of personnel in the country. Many companies, especially in the military sector, needed personnel to service equipment and help in expanding the production of weapons (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). Since China acted as an important ally of the US during the war, the Chinese were better placed to fill vacant employment positions in the job market. Even companies that had discriminated against the community before began recruiting the Chinese workforce. This contributed to elevating the economic standards of the Chinese living in the country (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). Given their vast professional qualifications, the Chinese began to dominate the professional sector. The cordial bilateral relations between the two countries at the time changed the Native Americans’ of the Chinese.

Second, the abandonment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Due to the interest of the United States in the larger Asian region, having China as one of its partners would serve as an ideal move to counter the influence of Japan. The Japanese were already spreading propaganda aimed at discrediting the US. The abandonment of the Act meant that the Chinese were now free people in the land of dreams (Hsin & Xie, 2014). Citizenship by Naturalization was also granted to Chinese citizens who had lived in the US for a long period. This qualified the Chinese to get services that they had initially been denied as Aliens. As citizens of the US, they were entitled to job opportunities just like their white counterparts. As a result, again due to their strong educational background, the number of Chinese professional employees increased dramatically (Hsin & Xie, 2014). In return, this meant an improvement in standards of living and an upward surge in the American-born Chinese population.

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Lastly, the social and economic prospects of Chinese Americans improved after the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965. This increased number of immigrants from China (Banerjee, 2014). Even though some of these immigrants were professionals with high levels of education and experience others had no basic education and were ignorant of the English language, a factor that could make their stay in the US even harder. Be that as it may, the less educated segment of the Chinese immigrants secured service jobs in the established Chinatowns and secondary labor market (Banerjee, 2014). This meant that Chinese Americans could obtain income from all sectors of the country’s flourishing economy.

Present Socioeconomic Distribution

It is a fact that Chinese Americans have made many strides in the economic and social aspects. However, as one would expect, the Chinese in America continues to grapple with problems associated with minority groups. For example, racial discrimination of the Chinese is still alive and well in the country (Li, 2014). Moreover, the economic rivalry between China and the United States has brought about new stereotype clichés. For instance, America continues to accuse China of theft of technology (West, 2016). Trade restrictions between the two countries through the implementation of tariffs have increased over the last decade as each nation tries to stamp its authority in the global economy. The latest example is the US move to ban Huawei from operating in the country. The US accuses the mega Chinese telecom company of attempts to infringe on its security system, an accusation that Huawei sharply refutes. The implication here is that things have improved for the Chinese living in America, but it is not as rosy and merry as one would imagine.

One thing that distinguished Chinese Americans from the whites was their involvement in small-scale businesses. For example, by 2000, 10% of the Chinese population were engaged in restaurant and grocery businesses compared to only 3% of the whites (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). This could be because the Chinese were not selective in their economic activities provided – the end justified the means in the sense that the most important thing for them was to earn a living. In the professional field, more Chinese born in America (22) had a better chance of securing high-end white-collar jobs compared to their foreign-born counterparts (17%) (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). As such, there is a sense in which American organizations preferred American-born Chinese professionals over those who had migrated from China. One reason could be because the former had already assimilated into the American culture and had prior knowledge about the organizational culture in the country. Overall, Chinese employees were not involved in the decision-making process. Their sole mandate was to provide their professional expertise as ordinary employees.

At this point, it is important to consider the poverty levels of the Chinese in America. The United States, being the richest and most developed country in the world, boasts of some of the lowest poverty levels. But this does not imply that everyone in the country is rich. On the contrary, most of the minority groups such as African Americans and American Chinese continue to lament over low incomes (Banerjee, 2014). In terms of the Chinese poverty levels, the foreign-born Chinese are poorer (lower disposable income) than those born in the United States. Generally, however, poverty levels are lower among the whites than the Chinese. According to Hooper and Batalova (2015), many studies provide contradictory findings on the socioeconomic status of Chinese Americans. What is apparent, however, is that the nativity of Chinese families is the main determinant of their socio-economic status. Therefore, foreign-born Chinese Americans lie behind the whites in economic progress.

Chinatowns as the Center of Chinese Social and Political Culture

The incidences of economic discrimination and racial profiling of the Chinese and other Asians in the United States gave rise to Chinatowns. Chinatowns are areas with many Chinese residents. Since the South Coast was the first destination for Chinese immigrants who came to work in the goldmines, States such as California have the largest number of Chinatowns (Chou & Feagin, 2015). By 2000, 40% of all the Chinese population in America lived in California. New York was the second-largest host of Chinese Americans with 18% of the total population living in New York City and other nearby cities (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). The important point to note is that Chinatowns are still in existence in the United States. It was a given that one could find a Chinatown anywhere with a large concentration of Chinese Americans. It is within the precincts of these Chinatowns that the Chinese social and political culture was bred.

Deriving its traditional structure from mainland China, Chinatowns in America had had three social and political underpinnings: the clans, Chinese Benevolent Associations, and the secret societies (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). Like in China, the clans are based on the system of kinship and composed of people of the same ancestry as well as those who bear the same family names (with or without blood relationship) (Li, 2014). In the past, clans helped one another, duties that were taken over by the government.

The benevolent associations, also known as the Chinese Six Companies, can be the most important segment of the leadership structure of Chinatowns because their role is to look after the welfare of all Chinese migrants (Lee, 2015). Many Chinese moved to the United States without any plan of ready employment. As such, the Chinese Six Companies were there to offer guidance in an attempt to ensure that the Chinese citizens not only settled into their host country but also thrived (Lee, 2019). One can argue that this is due to the memories of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The first thing was to provide them with settlements. Some were given loans to start businesses, while others were employed within the centers due to the language barrier (Umaña-Taylor, 2016). In addition, the Chinese Six Companies provided medical attention to the sick migrants and solved any disputes that arose among them. The implication here is that these associations had a great social responsibility that gave them the power to stamp authority over the incoming Chinese migrants.

The secret societies were leaders who had gained influence within the establishment and were highly respected. However, most of these leaders were also famous for the immoral behaviors that were characteristic of all Chinatowns such as prostitution and drug trafficking (Ling & Austin, 2015). During 1890, fights among these leaders were commonly reported. However, they fought over women and drugs – things that had no benefit to the ordinary Chinese in the neighborhood (Hooper & Batalova, 2015). As a result, the leaders were later discredited by the residents and their respect within Chinatowns faded away. One can argue that looking back, the ban of the Chinese Exclusion Act meant that the Chinese nationals living in the US had to find their place within society (Gao, 2019). However, due to the already established seclusion acts such as China Town, it became apparent that the Chinese were not interested in integrating with the natives.

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This paper aimed to give insight into the events surrounding the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the impact of its abandonment on Chinese Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act is a legislation that was passed by the United States Congress to counter an upsurge in the migration of Chinese citizens to the United States. This phenomenon was initiated by the emergence of gold mines in the West Coast state of California. Due to a shortage of human capital to work in the mines, the Chinese took up the opportunity. They also provided cheap labor in the US project of constructing a transcontinental railroad. Even so, the increase in the Chinese population in the country threatened the whites who launched negative discrimination against the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese nationals from going to the United States. The ban was lifted in 1943 after China became an ally of the US in World War II. The US also wanted to remain relevant in the Asian region and having China as an ally was a sure bet.

Given that most Chinese had obtained an education; the abandonment of the Exclusion Act allowed them to acquire white-collar jobs in companies that had initially segregated them. In 1965, the Immigration Act was enacted and all the discriminatory laws against the Chinese were suspended. As a result, the number of Chinese migrants into the US tripled. Chinatowns were formed in areas with a high Chinese population to preserve the social-cultural beliefs of the Chinese people. The Chinatowns, some of which still exist today, acted as mentoring centers for fresh Chinese immigrants from China. The Chinese leaders in Chinatowns also acted as a bridge between the residents and state or national authorities. Overall, it can be concluded that although the economic prospects of Chinese Americans increased after the abandonment of the Exclusion Act and enactment of the Immigration Act, they still encounter the same discriminatory challenges faced by minority ethnic groups in the United States.


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