Anti-Chinese law served the Chinese well

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 June, 2012, 12:00am


The United States' Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred the Chinese from migrating to that country for the next six decades. It also banned ethnic Chinese residents from becoming American citizens and voters. Blatantly racist and unjust, it was the only act that targeted an immigrant group based on race. In a resolution this week after more than a century, the US Congress has expressed regret, but did not apologise, for the legislation.

But considering the institutionalised slavery prevalent at that country's inception, and the state-sponsored genocide against native Indians under the guise of 'manifest destiny', the anti-Chinese act was perhaps all of a piece. I don't mean to be insensitive to those of my forebears who were victimised or excluded by the act. But it probably saved many of those who had left China from a life of toil, tears and early death as well as discrimination and marginalisation.

Since the late 19th century there has been an exodus of Chinese fleeing wars, famine and economic depression. Consider the fate of those who migrated to Southeast Asia and of those to Australia and the United States. Their diverse experiences and social-mobility outcomes could be considered the results of a massive social experiment.

This point was made by Arnold Toynbee in his masterpiece A Study of History. 'When the Chinese coolie emigrates to British Malaya or the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), he is apt to reap a reward for his enterprise ... by entering an alien social environment, one in which he is stimulated to better himself, and not infrequently he makes a fortune,' writes Toynbee. 'Suppose that we send him to Australia or California. In these White Man's countries, our enterprising coolie, if he gains admission at all will undergo an ordeal of vastly greater severity ... and face penalisation in which the law itself will discriminate against him.'

Think of all the great Chinese fortunes that were made in Asia lasting to this day and those that weren't made in the US and you realise the truth of Toynbee's observation. Chinese do not lack entrepreneurial genius and dynamism, but they didn't stand a chance under brutal legalised racism.