America and China: A historical perspective

Devyn Shea (TheLorian)

The first interactions between the young American nation and the then long-standing Qing Empire, were not very pleasant interactions to say the least. For the past few hundred years there has been a difficult relationship.

In the early 19th century, a couple decades after the United State’s start, the Americans had been smuggling Indian opium into the Chinese Empire. Soon after getting into the opium trade, a Chinese woman was killed by an Italian sailor on an American ship in the Terranova Affair. The sailor was later executed. The opium trade, however, continued to soar. The British, at the time, were the main proponents of the trade.

Opium trade in the Qing Empire was illegal, so technically the British and Americans were committing crimes by selling Persian and Indian opium to people inside the Qing Empire. The British claimed that doing this was just free trade. The Chinese, angered by the British, went to war with them in the First Opium War. While the war was going on, the U.S. carried on with trade in place of the British. The British won the war in the early 1840s and signed a treaty expanding trade with the Qing Empire. Shortly after, the U.S. signed a similar trade deal with the Qing Empire, which started the first official diplomatic relations with the two nations. Starting in 1847, Chinese immigrants started coming to America to work in mines and on the railroads. In 1858, the Chinese were wary of a potential attack from the British and French. They soon signed a treaty with the two nations, as well as America. The treaty legalized the opium trade in the Qing Empire. More treaties and agreements would be made and as time went on Chinese students started studying in the US as well. In 1875, the U.S. Congress passed the Page Act, most notably barring Chinese laborers from coming to the country. The Qing Empire stopped sending students to study in the U.S. in the early 1880s due to a growing Anti-Chinese sentiment.

In 1885, the anti-Chinese sentiment grew to a full force. The Chinese Expulsion Act banned Chinese immigration for ten years. The Western part of America became a hot spot for Chinese attacks. In one incident in Wyoming, twenty-eight Chinese miners were killed. This caused a chain reaction of attacks against Chinese all across the region. In 1892, the banning of Chinese was extended for an additional ten years and Chinese-Americans were stripped of many of their rights and were at risk of deportation. The restrictions amongst Chinese-Americans expanded again in the early 1900s and transformed their communities in America into ghettos. Due to the restrictions of Chinese coming to America, for many Chinese in the Qing Empire, an anti-American sentiment started to grow. For both sides it seemed to die down throughout the 1910s.

 After the fall of the Qing Empire and the rise of the new Republic of China, America kept good relations with the new nation. The U.S. gave them advice when Japan was advocating for control of Chinese land after defeating a German colony in the region during World War I. China was hoping to gain control of the former German colony, but Japan instead ended up with control after the war. Many in China were disappointed in Woodrow Wilson’s lack of commitment for uniting pieces of China. In 1924, more exclusions against Chinese immigrants were enacted, with minor exceptions such as students. In the 1930s, the U.S. government gave funds to China to help development projects in their rural areas and help keep the Nationalist government in control. When the U.S. was bombed at Pearl Harbor, they quickly joined the side of China in WWII and became good allies with them in fighting the Japanese. A few years later, Chinese were allowed back into the U.S. for the first time in over half a century.

The Republic of China would transform into the People’s Republic of China after Mao Zedong and the communists won the Chinese Civil War. The U.S. would get into combat against the Chinese in the early 1950s due to both countries’ involvement in the Korean War. Anti-Chinese sentiment started to gain traction in the 1950s, but a lot of it was quelled when LBJ and Congress retracted many of the remaining discriminatory laws against Chinese-American citizens and potential Chinese immigrants. Relations amongst the Chinese and Americans generally improved over the course of the next few decades. The People’s Republic of China had joined the United Nations and the U.S. acknowledged the PRC’s legitimacy over the Republic of China located in Taiwan. Sanctions against China in 1989, however, halted relations. The sanctions came after the Tiananmen Square Massacre that presumably killed hundreds to thousands of Chinese citizens in China.

In recent months an anti-Chinese sentiment has reborn due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chinese-Americans have been the base of many violent attacks in America due to a false affiliation between them and the origin of the Coronavirus in Wuhan, China. As for the government of China, many have called for sanctions to be brought up against the nation due to their treatment of the Uyghur people. There has been a long and dark history of prejudice against Chinese immigrants and Americans throughout the past two hundred years. After the 1960s, the attitude toward the Chinese improved, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, prejudice toward Chinese-Americans and immigrants has started back up again. Will the attitude towards these peoples improve or will we transition to another dark age of prejudice against them?

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