Year
1888

Chinese laborers excluded from U.S.

Agreeing to cooperate with a policy unilaterally adopted by Congress six years earlier, China approves a treaty forbidding Chinese laborers to enter the United States for 20 years.

In the 1850s, large numbers of Chinese immigrated to the American West. Most came from the Pearl River Delta region of South China, where famine and political instability made if difficult for them to support the large extended families thought to be essential to happiness and success. When exaggerated reports of the California Gold Rush reached China, thousands of Chinese men booked passage for California. In contrast to many of the other immigrants to the American West, few of the Chinese immigrants intended to settle permanently in the U.S. They planned instead to work in the gold fields only until they had saved enough money to return to China and support their families.

Few Chinese, however, found wealth in the U.S. In order to pay for their passage across the Pacific, many Chinese immigrants became indentured servants. Arriving in America with a heavy load of debt, they were forced to work until they had paid back their debt. Chinese and Anglo employers alike took advantage of their plight, paying the immigrants just enough to keep their hopes alive but not enough to free them from debt.

By 1880, just over 100,000 Chinese lived in the United States, the majority of them in California. Most came in hopes of striking it rich in the gold fields, but they quickly learned to make money in whatever way they could. Despite the prevalence of local and state laws prohibiting them from owning certain mining properties or entering into specified businesses, many Chinese succeeded in finding niches. Groups of Chinese immigrants would occasionally band together and transform old mining claims, abandoned by Anglos, into paying operations. Others prospered in businesses like laundries or restaurants, which most Anglo men considered menial “women’s work.”

Inevitably, the success and distinct culture of the Chinese immigrants made them an easy target for xenophobic Anglos. Wherever they went, however, the Chinese were treated with growing resentment. By the 1880s, many working-class Anglos began to accuse the Chinese of depriving them of jobs and undermining early efforts to unionize the western mining industry. Blatant racism fed Anglo hatred. One San Franciscan argued that God intended the Chinese to remain only in China, for “they are not a favored people, they are not to be permitted to steal from us what we have.”

The American government responded to these fears by limiting Chinese immigration with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first time that the U.S. excluded immigrants based on race and nationality. Significantly, the Exclusion Act only excluded Chinese laborers. The U.S. continued to welcome merchants, who promised to help Americans maintain lucrative trading ties with the vast Chinese population, and professionals who offered valuable skills. Immigrants from no other nation received such discriminatory treatment.

Six years later, the Chinese government agreed to the fundamental principles of the Exclusion Act. Under pressure from the U.S., the Chinese signed a treaty on this day in 1888 agreeing not to allow any laborers to immigrate to America. Only in 1943, when China became a valuable ally in the war against Japan, did the U.S. finally abandon this blatantly racist policy.

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