China-U.S. Relations and Chinese Americans

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China-U.S. Relations and Chinese Americans





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.


If the cold war injected a new dimension into race relations for Chinese Americans, the racialization of national security, the acceleration of globalization after the cold war, and the rise of China added both complexity and complications to the racism facing Chinese Americans. Globalization, of course, antedated the end of the cold war. In fact, the arrival of transnational Chinese capital from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asian countries began in the early 1970s when President Richard Nixon abandoned the containment of China policy in favor of a new policy of détente and engagement. The new policy promptly sent shock waves across East and Southeast Asia and precipitated an unprecedented geopolitical realignment in the region. Up until then, the dictatorial governments of the region had relied exclusively on U.S. political, economic, and military support and protection. Now, the peoples of the region began to demand human rights, democratic reform, and national liberation.

The ensuing political instability led to the flight of wealthy business owners and investors, a new type of immigrant, and, after 1975, refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, many of whom were, in fact, members of ethnic Chinese minority groups. The impact of globalization was not limited to historic Chinatowns, suburbs, and regional economies around major U.S. cities: It also changed the patterns of Chinese-American participation in electoral politics. By the 1990s both the Republican National Committee (RNC) and Democratic National Committee (DNC) discovered not so much the votes, but the money, in Chinese America. They began a concerted effort to identify and solicit political donations from wealthy Chinese immigrants.

At the same time, the new immigrants realized that business success in America depended to a large extent on political connection and access. The Chinese had the wherewithal, but they lacked the knowledge and knowhow to play the game of American plutocracy. This was where they stumbled, and they were caught in the cross-fire between the Republicans and the Democrats. Race and political corruption were linked in the political fight. In the process, Asian fundraisers and big donors became the national focus of one of the fiercest partisan power struggles in the history of the United States.

The great 1996 campaign finance scandal, dubbed variously in the media and by the RNC as “Donorgate,” “The Asian Finance Scandal,” or “Chinagate,” began when the immigrant John Huang, a well-connected Chinese-American banker associated with the Lippo Group, one of the largest conglomerates in Indonesia, was hired by the DNC to undertake a new fundraising strategy among rich Asian-American donors. President Bill Clinton was up for re-election, and so were many congressional seats, and the political future of Vice President Al Gore was at stake.

By well-established party standards, the amount of money Huang and a few of his associates ultimately raised for Clinton and the DNC was insignificant, amounting to only 5 million dollars out of some 1.4 billion dollars raised and spent by both parties in the 1996 federal elections. How Huang raised the money, and who gave it, were the sources of partisan contestation, and this became the focus of the Republican attack and a media feeding frenzy from September 1996, two months before the presidential election, to the indictment of the Chinese-American nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee in December 1999.

Several congressional committees under the Republican-controlled Congress held high-profile hearings to highlight the seriousness of the scandal, criticize Clinton for selling out U.S. interests in return for China-connected political donations to the DNC, and accuse China of trying to subvert American democracy through its illegal political contributions. There was no evidence for most of these allegations, however. Instead of focusing on fixing the broken and corrupt system of campaign financing, the Republican leaders chose to racialize the scandal, brand small-time Chinese-American wrongdoers as launderers of “Chinese Communist” money, and accuse President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and the DNC of being greedy and unscrupulous. In response, the DNC quickly launched its own investigation into only the Chinese and Asians who contributed to the party. In other words, the DNC joined the RNC in racializing the scandal. By scapegoating Chinese donors and racializing the scandal, both the RNC and DNC succeeded in diverting public attention from the corrupt campaign finance system practiced by both parties.

Most of the Chinese Americans involved in these events either pleaded to lesser charges or had their cases dismissed due to insufficient evidence. All the major foreign donors escaped prosecution, except for James Riady, the head of the Lippo Group of Indonesia, who pleaded guilty to laundering his donations to the DNC, for which he was fined several million dollars and not permitted to enter the United States for two years.

The scandal severely damaged the reputation of the Democrats. It also created sleazy public images of Chinese Americans. Yet in spite of several sensational investigations launched by Republican-controlled congressional committees, no conclusion was reached and no legislative remedy proposed. (The heavily compromised McCain-Feingold reform bill did not pass the U.S. Congress until 2001.) The racialized scandal did open a door for Republicans, however, who linked it to the alleged “threat of China.” In May 1998, House Speaker Newt Gingrich appointed a special committee, popularly known as the Cox Committee, to investigate this link, thus planting a seed for a renewed partisan political brawl in 1999 and 2000. The committee determined that China had stolen design information about advanced U.S. thermonuclear weapons. It was the Cox Report, leaked to the media in December 1998, that prompted the sensational persecution and prosecution of an alleged China spy, Dr. Wen Ho Lee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL). The report also influenced George W. Bush’s new policy of strategic ambiguity and competition with China during his 2000 presidential campaign, as well as his belligerent policy toward China before September 11, 2001, which marked a significant departure from the bipartisan China policy consensus that had existed since Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972.

Behind the Chinese campaign finance scandal and the persecution of Wen Ho Lee were partisan power struggles for the control of both the White House and the Congress. These incidents also reflected the question of how the United States should deal with the inevitable rise of China since the late 1980s and the presumed threat it poses to U.S. global hegemony and national security. Both cases show how Chinese-American rights and interests are intricately linked to how the United States perceives China and how the two countries deal with each other diplomatically in a changing world. In this context, reports on the rise of China and the political discourse accompanying them are of great concern to Chinese Americans. Exactly how this discourse will evolve, and how Chinese Americans will be seen and treated, remains to be seen.


Chang, Gordon, ed. 2001. Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.

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Sandmeyer, Elmer Clarence. 1991. The Anti-Chinese Movement in California, 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sutter, Robert G. 1998. U.S. Policy toward China: An Introduction to the Role of Interest Groups. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Tsai, Shih-shan Henry. 1983. China and the Overseas Chinese in the United States, 1868–1911. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press.

L. Ling-chi Wang

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