The Chinese Exclusion Act, Explained
Updated: Aug 18
The Chinese Exclusion Act was a controversial and difficult feat in American history, which has left a profound impact on the US political and legal system as well as the Chinese American people.
What was the Chinese Exclusion Act?
Signed into law in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law that prohibited the immigration of Chinese labourers. It stemmed from a previous law which banned Chinese women from entering the United States, extending this prohibition to men as well. It was the first - and remains the only - law to prevent a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the United States.
What is the background behind the act?
The Chinese first arrived in America in the early 1800s, mostly sailors and merchants. The 1840s brought more Chinese labourers, especially to California, where many of them worked on railroads, plantations, and in agriculture. However, the majority of them entered at the height of the California Gold Rush from 1848 onwards, with tens of thousands living across the US.
In some areas they were tolerated, but they soon faced increasing animosity, particularly in California, where many were forced to stop mining and seek other work. This was due to the Foreign Miner’s Tax of 1850 which was imposed upon them in response to increased competition in gold mining.
The State of California attempted to impose laws restricting the immigration of Chinese workers into the state but the State Supreme Court overruled most of these. Nevertheless, anti-Chinese sentiment continued to rise, leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese workers not only provided cheaper labour but they were blamed for taking jobs from American citizens (a phenomenon known as Yellow Peril) and for depressing wages. Eventually, the federal government compromised with California lawmakers by banning all Chinese immigrants for ten years, with some limited exceptions.
For more information on Sinophobia, or anti-Asian hate, head to our guide.
What did the act state?
The initial Act stated that "skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” were not allowed to enter the United States for ten years. This was renewed for another ten years in 1892, and again in 1902 without a definitive end date. Any prospective Chinese immigrants and visitors had to provide certification verifying their credentials, which for many was hard to do.
How did the law affect Chinese immigrants?
With the law banning nearly all immigrants from China, those who had left their families behind to go to America faced the difficult choice of staying in the US or returning home. Those who stayed faced further anti-Chinese discrimination, segregation and hate crimes (Sinophobia), including violence and massacres. They were not allowed to become US citizens. If they left, amendments to the law effectively prevented them from re-entering.
When did the act end?
The Act was first repealed in 1943 with the Magnuson Act which permitted some residents to become naturalised citizens. However, it allowed entry to just 105 immigrants a year and continued to ban ethnic Chinese from owning property and businesses.
It wasn’t until 1965 that it was fully repealed. This enabled the second major wave of Chinese immigrants into the country, mainly from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mainland Chinese immigrants did not enter in significant numbers until the 1970s.
How does the law impact Chinese American society today?
Today there are 5 million Chinese Americans, 1.5% of the total US population. Many have excelled in both academic and professional life, while they have also been credited for a drive in the U.S. economy.
However, racial tensions and discrimination still exist. The rise of China as a global superpower has fuelled further Yellow Peril as some election campaigns focused on the negative impact of trade between China and the United States. President Trump was repeatedly accused of being heavily anti-Chinese. He was known to hold negative views of the Chinese government, imposing trade restrictions with China. Furthermore, Chinese students, immigrants and travellers reported increased difficulty in getting visas during Trump’s presidency.
The Chinese and Asian American communities today face similar Sinophobia to the 1800s with the recent increase in anti-Chinese and Asian sentiments rising from the COVID-19 pandemic, which you can read more about here. Although it is highly unlikely a similar law will ever be enacted again, it has left a scar on America’s multicultural history.