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Eye on the East: Labor Calls for Ban on Chinese Immigration

The San Francisco Building Trades Council (BTC), which Patrick McCarthy helped organize in 1898, actively participated in the anti-Asian agitation that characterized California politics, particularly labor politics, in the late-19th century. The BTC, like the national American Federation of Labor (AFL), argued that the very presence of Chinese (and, after 1900, Japanese and Korean immigrants as well) dragged down the living standards of white workers. This memorial from a 1901 Chinese exclusion convention in San Francisco devoted to strategies for preventing Chinese immigration, called on Congress to use its legislative powers to limit the arrival of Asian aliens to America. It was reprinted in a 1902 AFL pamphlet.

To the President and Congress of the United States:

Pursuant to call officially issued by the city of San Francisco, there assembled at the city of San Francisco, on the 21st day of November, 1901, for the purpose of expressing the sentiments of the State of California, a convention composed of representatives of county supervisors, city councils, and trade, commercial, and civic organizations, to the number of more than 1,000, and without dissent it was resolved to memorialize the President and Congress of the United States as follows:

When Chinese Flocked In.

Soon after the negotiation of the Burlingame treaty in 1868 large numbers of Chinese coolies were brought to this country under contract. Their numbers so increased that in 1878 the people of the State made a practically unanimous demand for the restriction of immigration. Our white population suffered in every department of labor and trade, having in numerous instances been driven out of employment by the competition of the Chinese. The progress of the State was arrested, because so long as the field was occupied by Chinese a new and desirable immigration was impossible. After a bitter struggle remedial legislation was passed in 1882, and was renewed in 1892, and by treaty with China in 1894 Chinese exclusion became, with the consent of China, apparently the settled policy of the country. These laws were to run for a period of ten years. Your memorialists, in view of the fact that the present so-called Geary law expires by limitation on May 5 next, and learning that you have been petitioned against its reenactment, believe that it is necessary for them to repeat and to reaffirm the reasons which, in their judgement, require the reenactment and the continued enforcement of the law.

Effects of the Geary Act.

The effects of Chinese exclusion have been most advantageous to the State. The 75,000 Chinese residents of California in 1880 have been reduced, according to the last census, to 45,000; and whereas the settlement of California by Caucasians had been arrested prior to the adoption of these laws, a healthy growth of the State in population has marked the progress of recent years. Every material interest of the State has advanced, and prosperity has been our portion. Were the restriction laws relaxed we are convinced that our working population would be displaced, and the noble structure of our State, the creation of American ideas and industry, would be imperiled, if not destroyed. The lapse of time has only confirmed your memorialists in their conviction, from their knowledge derived from actually coming in contact with the Chinese, that they are a nonassimilative race, and by every standard of thought, undesirable as citizens. Although they have been frequently employed and treated with decent consideration ever since the enactment of the exclusion law in 1882, which was the culmination and satisfaction of California’s patriotic purpose, they have not in any sense altered their racial characteristics, and have not, socially or otherwise, assimilated with our people.

Chinese Are Not Assimilative.

To quote the imperial Chinese consul-general of San Francisco: They work more cheaply than whites; they live more cheaply; they send their money out of the country to China; most of them have no intention of remaining in the United States, and they do not adopt American manners, but live in colonies, and not after the American fashion.

Until this year no statute had been passed by the State forbidding their intermarriage with the whites, and yet during their long residence but few intermarriages have taken place, and the offspring has been invariably degenerate. It is well established that the issue of the Caucasian and the Mongolian does not possess the virtues of either, but develops the vices of both. So physical assimilation is out of the question. It is well known that the vast majority of the Chinese do not bring their wives with them in their immigration because of their purpose to return to their native land when a competency is earned. Their practical status among us has been that of single men competing at low wages against not only men of our race, but men who have been brought up by our civilization to family life and civic duty. They pay little taxes; they support no institutions, neither school, church, nor theater; they remain steadfastly, after all these years, a permanently foreign element. The purpose, no doubt, for enacting the exclusion laws for periods of ten years is due to the intention of Congress of observing the progress of these people under American institutions, and now it has been clearly demonstrated that they can not, for the deep and ineradicable reasons of race and mental organization, assimilate with our own people and be molded as are other races into strong and composite American stock.

Deter Desirable Immigration.

We respectfully represent that their presence excludes a desirable population, and that there is no necessity whatever for their immigration. The immigration laws of this country now exclude pauper and contract labor from every land. All Chinese immigration of the coolie class is both pauper and contract labor. It is not a voluntary immigration. The Chinese Six Companies of California deal in Chinese labor as a commodity. Prior to the exclusion they freely imported coolies, provided for them, farmed out their services, and returned them, and if they should die, their bones, pursuant to a superstitious belief, to their native land.

America is the asylum for the oppressed and liberty-loving people of the world: and the implied condition of their admission to this country is their allegiance to its Government and devotion to its institutions. It is hardly necessary to say that the Chinese are not even bona fide settlers, as the imperial Chinese consul-general admits.

Protection For American Labor.

We respectfully represent that American labor should not be exposed to the destructive competition of aliens who do not, will not, and can not take up the burdens of American citizenship, whose presence is an economic blight and a patriotic danger. It has been urged that the Chinese are unskilled and that they create wealth in field, mine, and forest, which ultimately redounds to the benefit of the white skilled workingman. The Chinese are skilled, and are capable of almost any skilled employment. They have invaded the cigar, shoe, broom, chemical, clothing, fruit canning, match making, woolen manufacturing industries, and have displaced more than 4,000 white men in these several employments in the city of San Francisco. As common laborers they have throughout California displaced tens of thousands of men. But this country is not concerned, even in a coldly economic sense, with the production of wealth. The United States has now a greater per capita of working energy than any other land. If it is stimulated by a nonassimilative and nonconsuming race, there is grave danger of overproduction and stagnation. The home market should grow with the population. But the Chinese, living on the most meager food, having no families to support, inured to deprivation, and hoarding their wages for use in their native land, whither they invariably return, can not in any sense be regarded as consumers. Their earnings do not circulate nor are they reinvested, contrary to those economic laws which make for the prosperity of nations. For their services they may be said to be paid twice, first by their employer and then by the community. If we must have protection, is it not far better for us to protect ourselves against the man than against his trade? Our opponents maintain that the admission of the Chinese would cause an enlargement of our national wealth and a great increase of production; but the distribution of wealth, not its production, is to-day our most serious public question. In this age of science and invention the production of wealth can well be left to take care of itself. It is its equitable distribution that must now be the concern of the country.

Exclusion An Aid To Industrial Peace.

The increasing recurrence of strikes in modern times must have convinced everyone that their recent settlement is nothing more than a truce. It is not a permanent industrial peace. The new organization of capital and labor that is now necessary to bring about lasting peace and harmony between those engaged in the production will require greater sympathy, greater trust and confidence, and a clearer mutual understanding between the employers and the employed. Any such new organization will require a closer union to be formed between them. These requirements can never be fulfilled between the individuals of races so alien to one another as ourselves and the Chinese.

The Chinese are only capable of working under the present unsatisfactory system. All progress, then, to an approved organization of capital and labor would be arrested. We might have greater growth, but never greater development. It was estimated by the Commissioner of Labor that there were 1,000,000 idle men in the United States in 1886. Certainly the 76,000 Chinese in California at that time stood for 76,000 white men waiting for employment, and the further influx of Chinese in any considerable numbers would precipitate the same conditions again, if not, indeed, make it chronic. If the United States increases in population at the rate of 12 per cent per decade, it will have nearly 230,000,000 of people in one hundred years. Our inventive genius and the constant improvements being made in machinery will greatly increase our per capita productive capacity. If it be our only aim to increase our wealth so as to hold our own in the markets of the world, are we not, without the aid of Chinese coolies, capable of doing it, and at the same time preserve the character of our population and insure the perpetuity of our institutions? It is not wealth at any cost that sound public policy requires, but that the country be developed with equal pace and with a desirable population, which stands not only for industry, but for citizenship.

Answer To Opponents of Exclusion.

In their appeal to the cupidity of farmers and orchardists the opponents of Chinese immigration have stated that the Chinese are only common laborers, and by this kind of argument they have attempted to disarm the skilled labor organizations of the country; but we have shown you that the Chinese are skilled and are capable of becoming skilled. As agriculturists they have crowded out the native population and driven the country boy from the farm to the city, where he meets their skilled competition in many branches of industry. But shall husbandry be abandoned to a servile class? Shall the boys and girls of the fields and of the orchards be deprived of their legitimate work in the harvest? Shall not our farmers be compelled to look to their own households and to their own neighbors for labor? Shall the easy methods of contract employment be fostered? We are warned by history that the free population of Rome was driven by slave labor from the country into the city, where they became a mob and a rabble, ultimately compassing the downfall of the republic. The small farms were destroyed, and under an overseer large farms were cultivated, which led Pliny to remark that “great estates ruined Italy.”

Experience with Slave Labor.

The experience of the South with slave labor warned us against an unlimited Chinese immigration, considered both as a race question and as an economic problem. The Chinese, if permitted freely to enter this country, would create race antagonisms which would ultimately result in great public disturbance. The Caucasians will not tolerate the Mongolian. As ultimately all government is based upon physical force, the white population of this country would not, without resistance suffer itself to be destroyed.

If we were to return to the antebellum ideas of the South, now happily discarded, the Chinese would satisfy every requirement of a slave or servile class. They work well, they are docile, and they would not be concerned about their political condition; but such suggestions are repulsive to American civilization. America has dignified work and made it honorable. Manhood gives title to rights, and the Government being ruled by majorities, is largely controlled by the very class which servile labor would supersede, namely, the free and independent workingmen of America. The political power invested in men by this Government shows the absolute necessity of keeping up the standard of population and not permitting it to deteriorate by contact with inferior and nonassimilative races.

Our Civilization Is Involved.

But this is not alone a race, labor and political question, It is one which involves our civilization and interests the people of the world. The benefactors, scholars, soldiers, and statesman—the patriots and martyrs of mankind—have builded our modern fabric firmly upon the foundation of religion, law, science, and art. It has been rescued from barbarism and protected against the incursions of barbarians. Civilization in Europe has been frequently attacked and imperiled by the barbaric hordes of Asia. If the little band of Greeks at Marathon had not beaten back ten times their number of Asiatic invaders, it is impossible to estimate the loss to civilization that would have ensued. When we contemplate what modern civilization owes to the two centuries of Athenian life, from which we first learned our lessons of civil and intellectual freedom, we can see how necessary it was to keep the Asiatic from breaking into Europe. Attila and his Asiatic hordes threatened central Europe when the Gauls made their successful stand against them. The wave of Asiatic barbarism rolled back and civilization was again saved. The repulse of the Turks, who are of the Mongolian race, before Vienna finally made our civilization strong enough to take care of itself, and the danger of extinction by a military invasion from Asia passed away. But a peaceful invasion is more dangerous than a war-like attack. We can meet and defend ourselves against an open foe, but an insidious foe under our generous laws would be in possession of the citadel before we were aware. The free immigration of Chinese would be for all purposes an invasion by Asiatic barbarians, against whom civilization in Europe has been frequently defended, fortunately for us. It is our inheritance to keep it pure and uncontaminated, as it is our purpose and destiny to broaden and enlarge it. We are trustees for mankind.

Welfare of Chinese Not Overlooked.

In an age when the brotherhood of man has become more fully recognized we are not prepared to overlook the welfare of the Chinese himself. We need have nothing on our national conscience, because the Chinese has a great industrial destiny in his own country. Few realize that China is yet a sparsely populated country. Let their merchants, travelers, and students, then, come here, as before, to carry back to China the benefits of our improvements and experiments. Let American ideas of progress and enterprise be planted on Chinese soil. Our commerce with China since 1880 has increased more than 50 per cent. Our consular service reports that “the United States is second only to Great Britain in goods sold to the Chinese.” The United States buys more goods from China than does any other nation, and her total trade with China, exports and imports, equals that of Great Britain, not including the colonies, and is far ahead of that of any other country.

Commerce is not sentimental and has not been affected by our policy of exclusion. The Chinese Government, knowing the necessity of the situation, being familiar with the fact that almost every country has imposed restrictions upon the immigration of Chinese coolies, does not regard our attitude as an unfriendly act. Indeed, our legislation has been confirmed to treaty. Nor are the Chinese unappreciative of the friendship of the United States recently displayed in saving, possibly, the Empire itself from dismemberment. So, therefore, America is at no disadvantage in its commercial dealings with China on account of the domestic policy of Chinese exclusion.

Nation’s Safety Needs Exclusion.

Therefore every consideration of public duty, the nation’s safety and the people’s rights, the preservation of our civilization, and the perpetuity of our institutions, impel your memorialists to ask for the reenactment of the exclusion laws, which have for twenty years protected us against the gravest dangers, and which were they relaxed would imperil every interest which the American people hold sacred for themselves and their posterity.

The above memorial was adopted by the Chinese exclusion convention at San Francisco, Cal., November 22, 1901.

Source: American Federation of Labor, Some Reasons for Chinese Exclusion. Meat vs. Rice. American Manhood against Asiatic Coolieism .Which Shall Survive? Senate Doc. No. 137, 57th Congress, 1st Session (Washington D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1902).

See Also:A Clear and Present Danger: The Chinese Exclusion Act