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Context of '1882: Chinese Exclusion Act Forbids Chinese from Becoming Citizens; First Legislation to Label Specific Ethnicity as ‘Undesirable’ Immigrants'

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A handbill celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The phrase at the bottom reads: “Hip! Hurrah! The white man is on top.”A handbill celebrating the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The phrase at the bottom reads: “Hip! Hurrah! The white man is on top.” [Source: Monthly Review]The US Congress denies Chinese-Americans the right to vote or be citizens by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. Historian William Wei will later write that the Exclusion Act was driven by decades of racism against Chinese immigrants, with the express goal of “driv[ing] them out of the country. This hostility hindered efforts by the Chinese to become American. It forced them to flee to the Chinatowns on the coasts, where they found safety and support. In these ghettos, they managed to eke out a meager existence, but were isolated from the rest of the population, making it difficult if not impossible to assimilate into mainstream society. To add insult to injury, Chinese were criticized for their alleged unassimilability.” The Exclusion Act is the first such legislation in US history to name a specific group of people “as undesirable for immigration to the United States,” and “marked a fateful departure from the traditional American policy of unrestricted immigration.” (Harper's Weekly 1999; American Civil Liberties Union 2012) The Exclusion Act will be repealed over 60 years later (see December 17, 1943).

The Magnuson Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943, repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act signed into law in 1882 (see 1882). The act is passed in part to “give face” to the US’s World War II ally, China. Congress agrees to repeal the Exclusion Act and sets a quota of Chinese immigrants who may come to the US annually. It also grants those immigrants the right to become citizens via naturalization. (Library of the University of Washington, Bothell 12/17/1943 pdf file; Harper's Weekly 1999; University of Delaware 2006 pdf file)

A day after Chinese president Jiang Zemin demands that the US apologize for the crash of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet that cost the life of the Chinese pilot (see March 31, 2001), Secretary of State Colin Powell expresses US “regret” over the death of pilot Wang Wei. The Pentagon claims that the crew of the American EP-3 managed to destroy much of the most sensitive surveillance equipment on the plane before it crash-landed on China’s Hainan Island, but, notes GlobalSecurity’s John Pike, “This airplane is basically just stuffed with electronics. Short of blowing up the airplane, there’s unavoidably a limit as to what they could destroy.” Chinese authorities say they will continue to detain the 24 crew members while they investigate the incident, and demand that the US halt all of its surveillance flights near Chinese territory. “We cannot understand why the United States often sent its planes to make surveillance flights in areas so close to China,” Jiang says. “And this time, in violation of international law and practice, the US plane bumped into our plane, invaded the Chinese territorial airspace and landed at our airport.” The next day, China’s Foreign Ministry says that Powell’s expression of regret is not enough; it again demands a full US apology and says that its officials will only meet with US officials to discuss the incident when Washington takes what it calls a “cooperative approach.” Bush reiterates Powell’s expression of regret over the death of Wei, and says though he does not want the incident to jeopardize Sino-American relations, the crew of the spy plane should be returned immediately. (CNN 4/2001; Reuters 4/4/2001)

Negotiations and disputes over the collision and subsequent crash of a US spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over Chinese waters continue (see March 31, 2001, April 4-5, 2001, and April 6-7, 2001). US officials warn long-term relations are at risk because of the dispute; Vice President Dick Cheney insists the US will not apologize over the incident. President Bush sends an unsigned letter to the wife of the slain Chinese pilot, Wang Wei, that expresses his “regret” over his death. Secretary of State Colin Powell says the letter is “very personal” and “not part of the political exchange.” Powell says that evening on national television, “[W]e have expressed regrets and we have expressed our sorrow, and we are sorry that the life was lost.” (CNN 4/2001; Associated Press 4/8/2001)


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