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united government exclusion political

When Chinese immigrants encountered racial oppression and exclusion in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they immediately equated their mistreatment with China’s weakness and the Chinese government’s inability to protect their rights and welfare through diplomacy, as the U.S. government did for U.S. citizens in China. They concluded that the only way to protect their rights was to help modernize and strengthen China. So in their own ways—through remittance; investments in modern utilities, transportation, and manufacturing industries; and participation in various educational, economic, and political reform movements in China (such as the Yangwu Yundong, the political reform led by Kang Youwei, and the revolutionary movement led by Sun Yatsen), they expressed their nationalistic sentiment and tried to make China strong. Thus, modern Chinese nationalism was born among the oppressed Chinese abroad and then exported to China.

Unfortunately, the Chinese government regarded any attempt to modernize China to be an act of disloyalty and a threat to the homeland government. China therefore established policies and institutions designed to keep the Chinese diaspora under surveillance and control. Through its diplomatic missions, the government began to monitor the Chinese-American community. Various coercive measures were used to ensure the loyalty of Chinese Americans toward Chinese culture, hometowns, and, above all, the homeland government. Those who criticized the government and advocated change within America’s Chinatowns or in their hometowns in China were punished. In so doing, the Chinese government violated the sovereignty of the United States and the rights of Chinese Americans to speak freely and freely associate.

The U.S. government, motivated by racism toward the Chinese-American community, viewed such flagrant extraterritorial interference with indifference or silent consent. Indeed, the U.S. government thought it was best for the Chinese immigrant population to be under control, even if this control was carried out by an alien government. As long as this interference did not harm the interests and welfare of mainstream America, the government chose to look the other way. Among the examples of this interference was the effort by Ambassador Wu Ting-fang to stop the reformer Liang Qi-chao from arriving in Honolulu in 1900. When that failed, he met with the Chinese Six Companies (officially, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association) and instigated a death-threat letter sent to Liang. Similarly, Sun Yat-sen was kidnapped by Chinese diplomats in London during his visit there on October 11, 1896, with the intent to bring him back to China, where he faced certain death. Fortunately, his unlawful detention was discovered by a friend and he was rescued.

Thus, Chinese in the United States were subjected to a highly institutionalized structure of dual domination. On the one hand, they were targets of racial exclusion and oppression from white society in the United States, and on the other hand, they were vulnerable to the extraterritorial, and at times repressive, domination of their homeland government. These two dynamic forces converged in exerting an extraordinary influence on Chinese-American lives and communities across the United States, and they were themselves shaped, respectively, by ever-changing U.S. racial politics and by bilateral diplomacy between China and the United States. Chinese-American interactions and negotiations with, and resistance to, these two forces were what constituted the substance of their experience in the United States. In this sense, the Chinese-American encounter with racism in American democracy has historically been unlike that of other immigrant groups and racial minorities in the United States.


World War II realigned global geopolitics and gave rise to new forms of racism and accommodation for Chinese America. China and the United States became allies in the war against German Nazism and Japanese militarism and fascism. At the end of the war, the United States emerged as the unchallenged global power and the leader of the Western world against the Communist world, led by the Soviet Union. In China, the corrupt, U.S.-backed Guomindang (or Kuomintang) regime, led by Chiang Kai-shek, was quickly driven out of Mainland China in 1949 by the Communist leader Mao Zedong. Chiang and his forces fled to China’s offshore province, Taiwan, under U.S. military protection. By then, the world had entered a new period of cold war. The United States became the global defender against communism at home and abroad. Building U.S. global military superiority and achieving a domestic ideological consensus was the vision of successive U.S. presidents in the 1950s and 1960s. Communist China was declared “Enemy No. 1,” and the U.S. policy of containment of China by military, political, and economic means became a bipartisan consensus until President Richard Nixon inaugurated a new policy of détente and engagement with China in 1972.

World War II brought mixed blessings to Chinese Americans. With China as a wartime ally of the United States, the public perception of Chinese in the United States turned positive, and Chinese Americans were actively recruited to enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces and work in war-related industries. Chinese Americans saw a decline in racial hostility and an opportunity to become assimilated. At the same time, Japan saw an opportunity to exploit America’s Chinese exclusion laws (initiated in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act) and racial discrimination against Chinese Americans. Through leafleting and radio broadcasts, Japan urged China and its people not to fight for racist America and instead join Japan in liberating China and the rest of Asia from American and European imperialism and colonialism.

To counter Japanese propaganda, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed the U.S. Congress in 1943 to repeal the Chinese exclusion laws as a necessary military strategy to bolster the morale of Chinese resistance and win the war. Congress, however, resisted the proposal, fearing that the repeal would bring a huge influx of unwanted and unassimilable Chinese immigrants. In a compromise, the exclusion laws were repealed and, in their place, a new exclusion formula was substituted that severely limited the admissible number of Chinese immigrants to an annual quota of 105.


The repeal, therefore, did little to advance Chinese-American rights, and exclusion and discrimination against Chinese Americans persisted after World War II. In fact, the cold war quickly inaugurated a new type of racism and exclusion that Chinese Americans had never before encountered: the racialization of national security and a subtle form of racism that, in early twenty-first century language, is known as “racial profiling.” Because China was declared Enemy No. 1, being Chinese American became synonymous with treason and espionage. From the point of view of J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, Chinese in the United States were part of China’s fifth column, intent on subverting America. Overnight, all federal law enforcement agencies (the CIA, FBI, IRS, INS, etc.) were mobilized to keep Chinese Americans under surveillance.

The good will garnered during World War II, when China was an ally, disappeared overnight when China turned Communist. Political recriminations began over who was responsible for “the loss of China,” and McCarthyism turned the nation paranoid and repressive. In place of good will were suspicion, racial hostility, and discrimination against Chinese Americans. Instead of confronting this new form of racism, the leadership of Chinese America in the 1950s and 1960s chose not only to condone political repression based on race, but also to assist the Nationalist government in Taiwan and U.S. law enforcement agencies in red-baiting and suppressing any Chinese Americans critical of the dictatorship and corruption of the Guomindang regime. Many Chinese Americans were harassed and intimidated, while others were denaturalized or threatened with deportation. Some committed suicide, others emigrated. Still others became targets of suspicion and were excluded from jobs and research projects connected to national security. Under the pretext of fighting communism, Chinese Americans were presumed to be untrustworthy, if not treasonous, and they were frequently discriminated against in housing, employment, and education. The constitutional rights of thousands of Chinese Americans were effectively suspended under the repressive atmosphere.

No organization, except the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA) and the Chinese Daily News (both in New York) openly protested such blatant violations of Chinese-American civil rights. In the face of such overpowering political repression, many Chinese Americans tried to prove their loyalty to the United States by forming anticommunist groups and denouncing China. Most chose to remain silent and tried to become accepted by becoming thoroughly Americanized or assimilated. Political repression and assimilation became two sides of the same coin. It was without doubt the darkest years of Chinese America and a shameful chapter in U.S. history.


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