Does anti-China sentiment in US repeat history?

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/20 17:33:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On December 16, a group of Chinese Americans gathered at the First Chinese Baptist Church located in the heart of Manhattan's Chinatown. In front of a wall with the words "God Is Love" engraved on it, they took turns to read out passages into a mic.

What they read - full of archaic legislative jargon - sounded boring at first. But those listening didn't think that anymore when they realized, at some stage during the process, that what was being read was the complete transcript of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act.

The law, signed by then US president Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibited most immigrants from China entering the US for more than half a century until it was repealed by the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943 after China became a US ally in World War II. The reading was to commemorate the 75th anniversary of scrapping the discriminatory law.

In the 75 years since then, especially from 1965 when the annual quota limit of 105 Chinese immigrants, a legacy of the law, was annulled, the population of Chinese immigrants in the US has grown exponentially. Now over 4 million, the Chinese have become one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the US. They stand out among immigrants because of their education levels and average income. Their political power has been rapidly increasing too. In New York alone, there are five Chinese lawmakers at federal, state and city council levels, compared to none in 2000 when I first came here.

The long lasting negative impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act has been erased little by little and Chinese Americans' contribution to the US, then and now, has been recognized in various ways.

In 2012, Congress passed a bill to apologize for the act, which was the first major federal law to restrict immigration of an ethnic group. Earlier this month, Congress passed another bill to collectively honor Chinese American WWII veterans with a Congressional Gold Medal. During the war, even with the Exclusion Act in effect, one fourth of the 78,000 Chinese in the US joined the military, a proportion that no other community could match. Yet, while the gold medals had been granted to veterans in many other communities, Chinese American veterans had been left out until now. In the meantime, many passed away or reached their 90s.

Earlier this month, the post office in the heart of Chinatown was renamed Mabel Lee Memorial Post Office to recognize the achievements of the suffragette pioneer and the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD from Columbia University.

But this kind of recognition doesn't mean the dark chapter of the Chinese Exclusion Act has been completely turned over. Indeed, 75 years after the act was repealed, it appears more relevant than ever. The rising xenophobia in the US in the past two years has already put all immigrants, Chinese included, in a capricious situation. Chinese Americans have started to hear more frequently the chilling shriek of "go back to your own country" in the street. 

The frigid relationship between China and the US has further aggravated the alienation of Chinese Americans. A report written by a group of American China experts and released by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University portrayed China as a sinister influence on the American system - from politics to business - and recommended restrictions on visas for Chinese scholars and journalists.

In her "dissenting opinion" attached to the report, China expert Susan Shirk wrote: "Especially during this moment in American political history, overstating the threat of subversion from China risks causing overreactions reminiscent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, including an anti-Chinese version of the Red Scare that would put all ethnic Chinese under a cloud of suspicion."

Could this cloud of suspicion immediately incubate the next Chinese Exclusion Act? Maybe not. But it's worth noting that the animosity against Chinese laborers started more than two decades before the act took effect. 

Back at the church, Chris Kwok, a lawyer and a member of the Asian American Bar Association of New York, reminded the audience in his remark before the reading that the US border was indeed open before the Chinese Exclusion Act. Border control was created to bar Chinese from entering, and the first official illegal immigrant into this country was Chinese. "We really need to understand that today because history is not always history. It's not even passed," he said.

The author is a New York-based journalist. rong_xiaoqing@hotmail.com

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