Chinese Exclusion Act: Modern-day lessons from historic discrimination

China 24

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign often targeted China, accusing the country of stealing American jobs. Similar charges were heard in the 1800s, when the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.

CGTN’s Jim Spellman looks back at that dark period.

Latinos, Africans and Haitians are among the groups facing anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. today. Chinese immigrants have also faced discrimination, however, including as far back as in the 1800s.

Ted Gong is executive director of the 1882 Foundation, and says the California gold rush was a catalyst.

“The gold brought people from all over the world, and that included Chinese,” he explained. “Maybe the first large groups of Chinese laborers came at that time.”

But with stumbles in the American economy, the Chinese increasingly became targets of discrimination. Racist posters described the immigrants as a “Yellow terror” taking American jobs. The cry soon became “The Chinese must go.”

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese laborers from entering the country.

“The coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities,” the law read. It also stated that “it shall not be lawful for any Chinese laborer to come” and “no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship.”

Gong said the political situation at the time was similar to the current political situation: Economic uncertainty leading to racist, nativist sentiments exploited by politicians.

“Catering for votes. Pandering for votes,” according to Gong.

The law led some communities on the West Coast to purge Chinese workers. Many were rounded up, put on barges or trains, and taken to San Francisco.

There was some safety in the city’s “Chinatown,” which Gong says was essentially a sanctuary city, because there was such a concentration of people that few dared attacked.

The Chinese Exclusion Act contributed to the creation of Chinatowns across the U.S. Places where Chinese immigrants could feel safe.

The law wasn’t overturned until 1943, when the U.S. needed China’s cooperation fighting Japan in World War Two. Today, Chinese Americans live and thrive throughout the country, while the Chinese Exclusion Act is largely forgotten.

“Very few people cite the Chinese Exclusion Laws to find parallels to things that are happening  today, parallels and consequences of what happened in those kind of laws,” according to Gong.

But he hopes that by educating more Americans about their own history, the country can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.

Frank Wu on the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act

CGTN’s Mike Walter spoke with Frank Wu, a distinguished professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law and chairman of The Committee of 100. They discussed discrimination -past and present – against Chinese in America.