Watching the Beijing Olympics, I can’t help but wonder at the very complicated relationship the U.S. has with China. In the beginning, we had an interest in reaching the Chinese market in order to export goods there. The Chinese were not interested, and had we not pressed it, we likely would’ve remained in our respective spheres. Our expansion into the Pacific Ocean in the 19th century (in the Philippines and the like) and ties with European colonial powers with holdings in Asia led us to pursue a connection anyway. In 1900, a Chinese faction attacked foreigners in China, hoping to expel them and restore the country’s isolation. The U.S. joined an “expeditionary” force to rescue captive diplomats and protect our trading interests. As a result, the Chinese government granted us continuing access to its markets.
This meddling in China was strictly tied to our lust for commerce. We had no interest in forging connections with the Chinese socially or to engage with their culture. We just wanted their money. In the U.S., racism towards Asians was extremely high then — and our country focused much of its hostility toward the Chinese. In 1882, we had actually banned Chinese immigrants from coming to our country for ten years and barred those already here from becoming citizens. In 1892, Congress renewed the ban and in 1902, it was made permanent (to be repealed in 1943 — with lingering immigration restrictions). The Chinese were the only people we treated this way. We did not ban Greeks or Germans or Hispanics. Our discrimination toward the Chinese was exclusive. We wanted them to buy our goods, but we didn’t want anything to do with them otherwise.
What prompted this extreme hostility? Well, partly, workers in the western United States blamed Chinese immigrants for accepting low wages that drove down pay for others and put Americans out of work (or as much as .002 percent of the population could affect wages and jobs anyway). In other areas, freed blacks, Hispanics, Irish, and women had the same effect. Congress did not ban such groups though.
The difference with the Chinese was undoubtedly race. Those were the days of social Darwinism, when Americans were obsessed with racial purity. The Irish and Hispanics were lesser sorts — but not so foreign as Asians. Their origins were in Europe and their cultures more familiar than the strange (and unwelcoming) ways of the Chinese. It’s amazing what a difference a shared alphabet makes. So, Americans took steps to keep out immigrants from China as thoroughly as possible.
Things were poor for the Chinese already here. Employers — the railroads especially — exploited Chinese workers for extremely low wages. To survive, these immigrants huddled together in segregated neighborhoods (“Chinatowns”), pooling resources to preserve themselves economically and socially. Railroad work often pulled Chinese workers away from enclaves in California and the coast though. For example, the Union Pacific Coal Company (which supplied coal for the trains) brought in Chinese workers to replace whites in mines in the northwest. By 1885, hundreds of Chinese workers had replaced Americans in the mines in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The whites, who struck for better wages and conditions, rioted that year and attacked the Chinese. The rioters looted the immigrants’ homes and then burned them down. At least twenty were killed and many others were wounded or disabled. Survivors lost everything and received no emergency aid from hostile and prejudiced locals, prompting intervention by the Chinese consulate. While the Rock Springs riot was the most violent of the conflicts in Wyoming, it was not the only such incident targeting Chinese immigrants in the U.S. Even the police were often guilty of attacking the Chinese. Early cases defining police brutality and acceptable law enforcement practices often involved Chinese immigrants.
Here we are now, all these years later, and our economy has grown increasingly dependent on the people we so thoroughly disdained. Unlike we first envisioned, though, we do not rely on China to buy American-made goods. We rely on their cheap labor to supply us with inexpensive products to feed our consumption. Their sweatshops still serve, but the Chinese are less our “coolies” than our bankers, these days. Our drive for racial purity hasn’t left us independent of or superior to the Chinese. It has, however, complicated our diplomacy and hangs, unspoken, over this year’s Games.