Forever Repeating the Past

Thousands of years of making one mistake after another and we’ll probably continue that way ad infinitum. Isn’t it nice when we learn from history?

WBWThe year was 1882. Populist politicians appealed to the lowest common denominator by spreading rumors, which in turn excited the xenophobia and racism. Leaders promised sweeping immigration bans that the politicians claimed were necessary to protect American “civilization and values.”

The exclusion of Chinese immigrating to the United States is one of many shameful chapters in American history. At the center of this epic whirlwind of institutional prejudice was a son of the Pearl River Delta.

Zhang Yinhuan was born in Foshan in 1837. As a youth, he impressed his neighbors and teachers with maturity and intellect. By 27, he was serving in the imperial bureaucracy where he caught the eye of influential patrons.

While more conservative officials grumbled at the young parvenu, others found him too useful to ignore. The ambitious and outspoken Cantonese official likely stepped on more than a few northern toes by offering frank views, which regularly ran counter to the more cautious officials at court.

Despite this, Zhang soon rose through the ranks and was handed increasing responsibilities in the Qing government.

After a short, but characteristically tumultuous tenure serving in the Zongli Yamen, Zhang received a most unusual order: He would be sent to America to serve as the Minister to the United States, Peru, and Spain.

There, labor agitators and nativists stoked the fears of American workers who believed that Chinese laborers were stealing jobs by being too willing to work harder for less pay than whites.

In 1886, Zhang left his home in Guangzhou and sailed across the Pacific and directly into a political firestorm where anti-Chinese sentiment was at an all-time high. There, labor agitators and nativists stoked the fears of American workers who believed that Chinese laborers were stealing jobs by being too willing to work harder for less pay than whites.

In 1882, US Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which all but banned Chinese from entering the country. Originally, the Act was to function for a limited period, but a series of incidents forced fearful politicians to consider extending the law.

The most serious of these incidents occurred on the night of September 2, 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyoming. That night, white mobs attacked Chinese workers and killed as many as 40 people.

Rather than work to protect Chinese communities under siege, the US government began to look at ways to make the ban on Chinese immigration permanent.

Zhang met with US Secretary of State Thomas Bayard to receive restitution for the dead men in the form of $147,748. Bayard famously denied the US had any legal obligation to pay reparations, but donated out of pity and generosity.

Zhang swallowed the insult as he was attempting to compromise with Bayard.

In exchange for a 20-year ban on Chinese immigrants, any Chinese who had returned to China would be allowed to come back to the United States if they met certain conditions. The US would also pay an additional $276,619 to the victims of the Rock Springs Massacre and other similar incidents.

While Zhang was off attending to his additional duties in Spain and Peru, opponents of the treaty on both sides spread lies, including suggestions that the Qing government had no intention of ever signing the treaty.

While it was true that the members of the Qing government had issues with the treaty, Zhang never got the chance to present their concerns to Bayard. When Zhang returned to Washington, he found his compromise in tatters.

The US Congress had taken matters into their own hands, passing the Scott Act in 1888, which not only upheld the Exclusion Act of six years earlier, but also prohibited Chinese who had left the United States from coming back into the country.

Zhang was devastated and returned to China in 1890. He would serve the Qing government as a diplomat for eight more years. In 1898, he was brought before the Board of Punishments after being accused of accepting bribes from foreign powers. Only intervention by the foreign embassies in Beijing saved him, and his death sentence was commuted to life of exile in Xinjiang.

The outbreak of the Boxer Uprising and the de-facto declaration of war by the Qing government against foreigners meant that the court no longer felt bound by the moral suasion of embassies. Word was dispatched to Xinjiang and Zhang Yinhuan was executed thousands of miles from his home.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was officially superseded by the Magnuson Act in 1943, although legal discrimination against Asian immigrants persisted into the 1960s. Immigration bans turned out to be as tempting a fruit for politicians playing to xenophobic voters as much now as they were way back then.