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How to Know Hong Kong and Macau

Roberto Ignacio Diaz, Dominic Cheung, Ana Paulina Lee, Authors

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Immigration and exclusion (c. 1850-1943)

Factors on both sides of the Pacific shaped the early relationship of overseas Chinese in the United States with both America and China. The Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) threw China into a massive civil war, leaving an estimated 20,000,000 dead of war, famine, and disease throughout the country.1 In southern China especially, from which a high percentage of emigration originated, economic distress contributed to the bloody Red Turban rebellion (1853-1854) and the Hakka-bendi ethnic conflict (1854-1867).2 The First and Second Opium Wars (1840-1842, 1856-1860) further devastated the Chinese state while enabling foreign powers to increase their influence. After 1860, the demands of Euro-American nations for cheap labor forced the Qing government to lift virtually all restrictions on Chinese emigration, opening the way for legalized mass emigration.3

On the other Pacific coast in the western United States, the discovery of gold in 1848 in northern California created an explosion of newcomers from around the world seeking their fortunes. Thousands of people came from around the world, including Germany, Chile, Mexico, Ireland, Turkey, and France. For thousands of Chinese from the famine- and war-torn southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, the allure of the gold rush was especially strong. Over the next decade California's population swelled dramatically; in 1848 San Francisco was home to 1,000 people, and two years later it boasted over 20,000.4 

However, many of the Chinese who came did not intend to stay, and were so known as "sojourners." It was mostly men who emigrated away from their home villages, sending remittances, or money back home, to their families. If they could make enough money, they would return to China to find wives and start families of their own, spending most of their time working overseas and visiting every few years before returning to settle or retire in China. Upon their return, they would often have a higher socioeconomic position in their home villages due to their prosperity.

During this period, China established embassies and consulates overseas in an attempt to protect its nationals abroad, recognizing the significant role of their remittances to the country's economy. In 1893, China repealed the last laws that had previously punished Chinese nationals who went abroad, making emigration fully legal.5 However, China's political and economic weakness made it almost unable to protect sojourners' rights and freedom of movement to Western countries.

In 1882 - a decade before the Qing government legalized emigration - the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act (text) in response to growing resentment toward cheap Chinese labor, preventing almost all Chinese immigration to the country. In this period, treatment of the Chinese in the Americas and other Western countries was extremely unfriendly, with anti-Chinese riots taking place throughout the 1870s-1930s in countries like Mexico, the United States, Canada, Australia. Victor Jew writes that there were 153 recorded instances of anti-Chinese violence in the United States from the 1850s-1908, with 143 Chinese murdered and 10,525 displaced from their homes and businesses.6

Nonetheless, life abroad offered more opportunities than on the mainland, and so many Chinese continued to live and work abroad, growing increasingly important to the Chinese state. In 1909, China passed the Citizenship Law stating that all children of a Chinese father (or of a Chinese mother, if the father could not be identified) were Chinese citizens, even if they were to acquire another citizenship overseas. This law sought to strengthen the ties of overseas Chinese to the economic development of the mainland, for the country was "[beginning] to realize as she never did before that her children born abroad will be a source of strength to her, if properly fostered and utilized."7

Facing discriminatory treatment in many of countries of residence and perpetually viewed as foreign Others, many overseas Chinese would indeed maintain ties to their homeland. Their contributions would revitalize China, even if not as the Qing government intended - Sun Yat-sen's Revolutionary Alliance, which would spark the 1911 Revolution that ended the Qing Dynasty and led to the establishment of the Republic of China, was largely funded by overseas Chinese (especially in Southeast Asia). It is often said that Sun Yat-sen said, "The overseas Chinese are the mother of the revolution."8 In 1939, as the Japanese invaded China in World War II, overseas Chinese sent back almost $350 million in donations and remittances, comprising 61% of China’s total defense budget for that year.9

Official policies of the Republic of China responded to the support and loyalty of overseas Chinese. From 1912-1919, the government sought to promote and supervise the education of overseas Chinese, concurrently appointing Chinese consuls in foreign countries as Advisers on Overseas Chinese Education. In 1926 in Canton (Guangzhou), the Kuomintang government (the Kuomintang was also known as the Nationalist Party) established the first Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission. Stephen Fitzgerald has described the Kuomintang's approach to the overseas Chinese in 1926 as having three goals: To improve the treatment of overseas Chinese in their countries of residence, to facilitate the return of their children to China to study, and to support overseas Chinese endeavors to establish industries in China.10

For nearly a century, life abroad was difficult and filled with discriminatory treatment and limited opportunities. Laws passed by various countries targeted the Chinese as foreign workers who should be kept alien. Rejected by their host countries, sojourners looked back to China and to their families and memories there; Chinese legislation furthermore welcomed them back to the mainland and ensured that they legally belonged to China. Overseas Chinese thus maintained strong relationships to their homeland - but in the turmoil of World War II and its aftermath, these ties would face drastic changes.

1Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "Taiping Rebellion," accessed June 2013, link
2Madeline Hsu, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882-1943 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 24-9.
3Guofu Liu, The Right to Leave and Return and Chinese Migration Law (Leiden, the Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2007), 131.
4"California Gold Rush (1848-1858)," Harvard University Library Open Collections, accessed June 2013, link; Barbara Maranzani, "8 Things You May Not Know About the California Gold Rush,", January 24, 2013, link.
5Liu, 132.
6Victor Jew, "'Chinese Demons': The Violent Articulation of Chinese Otherness and Interracial Sexuality in the U.S. Midwest, 1885-1889," Journal of Social History 37.2 (Winter 2003), 390.
7Tsai Chutun, "The Chinese Nationality Law, 1909," The American Journal of International Law 4.2 (April 1910), 407.
8Jianli Huang, "Umbilical Ties: The Framing of the Overseas Chinese as the Mother of the Revolution," Frontiers of History in China 6.2 (2011). Huang discusses the veracity of this statement's attribution, as well as its usage throughout the 20th century to maintain a connection between diasporic Chinese and the mainland.
9Xiao-huang Yin, "A Case Study of Transnationalism: Continuity and Changes in Chinese American Philanthropy to China," American Studies 45.2 (2004).
10Stephen Fitzgerald, China and the Overseas Chinese: A Study of Peking's Changing Policy: 1949-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 7.
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