Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion

Identification: Private committee established to lobby for repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Date: Established on May 25, 1943

Also known as: Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion and Place Immigration on a Quota Basis

Significance: Made up of a relatively small group of notable public figures, this ad hoc organization successfully leveraged its influence to persuade other organizations and members of the public to lobby Congress for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinese immigrants first came to the United States during the late 1840’s, when a student sponsored by American missionaries arrived in Hartford, Connecticut, to study. He later graduated from Yale University and eventually established a program that sent 120 more male students to study in Hartford. Chinese first came in substantial numbers during California’s mid-nineteenth century gold rush, which attracted about 25,000 immigrants from China. Thereafter, tens of thousands, mostly laborers, arrived, seeking employment in the railroad, agricultural, and lumber industries. By the 1870’s, Chinese immigrants constituted 10 percent of California’s population. Because they competed for jobs with members of other ethnic groups, they encountered active discrimination and persecution by those resenting their willingness to accept lower wages, their abstemious and disciplined habits, and their capacity to work at the most difficult jobs. “We were persecuted for our virtues,” one Chinese later remarked. Racial, cultural, and linguistic differences marked the Chinese out for exclusion from white society.

In 1882, the U.S. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited most Chinese from entering the United States, owning property, or becoming American citizens. The Chinese who were already in the country could not bring in their wives or children. The law was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902. By the time the United States entered World War II, in 1941, Chinese exclusion was the law of land. The Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, which operated from 1910 to 1940, detained arriving Chinese, who were usually sent home after months of harsh interrogation.

Background to the Committee

Although American missionaries had attempted to have Chinese exclusion rescinded during the 1920’s, an array of economic interests along with social prejudice, including racism, stood in their way. Nevertheless, during the 1930’s, a pro-Chinese movement began after the publication of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth about the sufferings of ordinary Chinese in rural China caused a sensation in the United States, while earning its author both a Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book also was made into a feature film that won five Academy Awards, including the award for best picture. Moreover, Henry Luce, the publisher of Time magazine, led a campaign of sympathy for China after its brutal invasion by the Japanese army during the 1930’s.Wellesley College-educated Madame Chiang Soong Mei-ling, better know as Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the head of the Chinese nationalist government, began touring the United States appealing for support for the Chinese war cause. Accordingly, by the time Japan launched its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, and the United States enteredWorld War II, sympathy for China and the Chinese was growing in the United States. On the other hand, opposition to lifting Chinese exclusion remained well entrenched, especially among members of labor unions who feared competition from Chinese workers, and the American public generally opposed large-scale non-western European immigration.

The immediate background to the formation of the Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion lay in the war in the Pacific. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, among others, considered it essential for victory that the U.S. alliance with China be preserved and that the Chinese continue fighting against Japan. However, the Japanese government was making frequent, skillful propaganda use of the Chinese Exclusion Act as proof of American moral hypocrisy and U.S. imperial aspirations toward Asia, which Japan argued would be far better off under Japanese rule. Chinese diplomats quietly suggested to Washington that the Exclusion Act was harming their war effort because it lowered Chinese morale. Thus the committee was formed in response to the need to rally public support for repeal as an aid to the American war effort. Such a repeal, supporters said, would also aid a postwar world in which U.S. relations with Asia and trade with China would gain new importance.

Makeup and Mission of the Committee

The committee was organized by JamesWalsh, a prominent New York publisher and the husband of Pearl S. Buck. Although the committee was relatively small—with never more than about 240 persons— it was highly influential in organizing support for repeal of the federal law. Meeting first on May 25, 1943, the committee functioned as a pressure group that induced larger forces to lobby Congress for repeal. Although lobbying against the law on moral grounds was decades old, the committee sought to take advantage of the new military situation in the Pacific by making the U.S. alliance with China a central feature.

The committee’s members were mostly eastern elites and their allies in other parts of the country who could use their social and professional positions to generate action against the Exclusion Act. Urged by the committee, business groups, for example, lobbied Congress to change the law, arguing that total exclusion and mistreatment of Chinese by customs officials were bad for business. When pressed, members such as Buck emphasized that repeal was necessary as a measure to win the war.

Outcome of the Committee’s Work

The committee was instrumental in bringing repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. By urging larger groups to lobby Congress for support, it effectively leveraged its limited size. During the late autumn of 1943, only seven months after the committee first met, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1943, which repealed Chinese exclusion.

Charles F. Bahmueller

Further Reading

  • Ma, Xiaohua. “A Democracy atWar: The American Campaign to Repeal Chinese Exclusion in 1943.” Japanese Journal of America Studies 9 (1998): 121-142. Account of the politics of repealing Chinese exclusion emphasizing arguments that repeal was required for a successful war effort against Japan. 
  • Riggs, Frederick. Pressure on Congress: A Study of the Repeal of Chinese Exclusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 1950. Definitive work on Chinese exclusion that is widely cited by scholars. Gives a detailed account of how lobbying Congress led to the repeal of the discriminatory law. 
  • Skrentny, John D. The Minority Rights Revolution. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. Dispassionate account of its subject that seeks understanding of how change occurs rather than denouncing the moral wrongs that impelled it. Locates the repeal of Chinese exclusion within the historical narrative of minority movements for redress of grievances. 
  • Wang, L. Ling-chi. “Politics of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Laws.” In Remembering 1882: Fighting for Civil Rights in the Shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act. San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 2007. Account of the political process that led to repeal of Chinese exclusion with particular attention to pressure-group lobbying. 

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Chinese American Citizens Alliance; Chinese boycott of 1905; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese Exclusion Cases; Chinese family associations; Chinese immigrants; Native Sons of the Golden State; Page Law of 1875; World War II.

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