‘The Chinese Question’: How Economics Molded Racism, Which Molded Economics

With good reason, a 2022 Bancroft Prize went to The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes, Chinese Migration, and Global Politics, by historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University. Ngai makes two major contributions. First, the work adds to the field’s understanding of how politico-economic concerns can create or influence racist beliefs. Second, it offers an important new observation on how China fell behind the West, adding late nineteenth-century factors to those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries highlighted by scholars like Kenneth Pomeranz. Ngai’s central contributions are in fact linked: economics and politics impacted racism, which impacted economics and politics.

In the United States, Australia, and South Africa, Chinese migrants and entrepreneurs pursuing gold mining and other enterprises met fierce resistance from whites. In California, for instance, politicians seeking votes whipped white miners, already concerned about the growing Chinese population, into a frenzy in the 1850s, resulting in discriminatory acts and violence (Ngai 85-88). Miners from China were framed as threats to white jobs, as a danger to the entire labor system. Whites falsely cast the Chinese as “coolies,” or indentured workers to bosses in China, servile by nature and paid little if anything to travel overseas and mine for gold. How could U.S. mining companies and white workers with higher wages — the free labor system — possibly compete with this? All this paralleled white worker anxiety over black slavery, concerns over displacement (ibid), only it was perhaps made more acute by the understanding that the valuable metal was a limited resource. The Chinese were invaders, robbing the U.S. of gold and with it opportunity (85, 134). This perception led to racist legislation, including exclusion laws that in the 1870s barred the immigration of ethnic Chinese persons (149-153). Though the British colonies of Australia and South Africa had unique experiences, certain interests in these places also stoked racism, at times centered around the Chinese race as a “moral menace,” “industrial evil” (269), or heathen invasion force (111), and eventually led to exclusion as well.

These policies hurt the growth of China, Ngai argues. “Anglo-American settler racism” played a role in “the development of global capitalism” (5). “Exclusion” specifically was “integral” (2). Opponents of exclusion had warned that ending migration would be a blow to trade and commerce, and it appears they were correct (274). “Exclusion meant fewer outlets for Chinese merchants and investors abroad,” as they were denied entry and business (274-275). Chinese capitalists were cut off from the most powerful and richest Western nations. They had to focus on southeast Asia. The restriction of the Western market decimated China’s tea industry, previously 55% of all exports (280). “Between 1886 and 1905, the volume of China’s annual tea exports fell by more than half, from 246 million pounds to 112 million pounds” (ibid). The U.S. had brought in 65% of its tea from China in 1867, but by 1905 it was down to 23% (281). Animus against the Eastern nation and its people had come to “outweigh…all other considerations, including those of a commercial nature,” an Australian analyst noted at the time (ibid). “The myriad nations all trade with each other,” Huang Zunxiang bemoaned in his poem “Exclusion of the Immigrants,” so “how can the Chinese be refused?” (271). As a further economic consequence of immigration bans, the Chinese in British colonies and America found it more difficult to send money (the strong pound and U.S. dollar) back to families in China, and the number of such workers who could even attempt this was of course capped (286-288).

Ngai writes that her “intention is to clarify racism’s historical origins and reproduction as a strategy of political interests” (xviii). Placing anti-coolieism, anti-Chinese racism, under the lights is as important as past scholarship that considered how racist depictions of Africans developed to justify slavery (see Harman, A People’s History of the World) — unintelligent savages could only benefit from enslavement. Economic interests pushed forward racist narratives. Likewise, notions of servile, inferior Chinese slaves (85, 107-108) served and protected white miners. Ngai’s text further serves to “illuminate how the politics of the Chinese Question was part of the ‘great divergence’ between the West and China in the nineteenth century” (310). The exclusion acts that shut the door on Chinese immigration and trade were a contributing factor, or perhaps a solidifying one, in the West surpassing China in economic might and development, alongside the factors uncovered by prior historians, such as proximity to coal and the existence of overseas colonies. It represents another blow to the old notion that the “Great Divergence” was a story of “inherent superiority or inferiority of Western versus Asian civilizations” or their capitalisms (309). Demonstrating economic contributions to racial ideologies would make for a powerful book, as would showing how racist beliefs and their policies impacted the relative power of global economies — doing both is award-worthy.

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