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The Political Economy of the Anti-Chinese Movement in California in the Nineteenth Century

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The passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 painted one of the most unsettling themes in the history of discrimination against ethnic minorities in the nineteenth century. The enactment marked the first federal legislation to prevent the immigration of laborers of a specific ethnic group. This paper develops a model to study the anti-Chinese movement in California by drawing on the previous literature. The model suggests that adverse economic conditions in the labor market, direct competition between Chinese workers and native workers, well-organized native labor, and durable legislation can explain why there was a three-decade time lag between the first wave of Chinese agitation and the passage of the exclusion act. It can also explain why organized labor could influence politics in California.

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  1. In 1860, more than a quarter of labor force in the mining industry were Chinese origins.

  2. Interestingly, while Fong and Markham (1991) propose that the growth rate of immigration could lead to significant numbers of conflicts in their model, they conclude that “nothing to suggest that the growth rate (of Chinese immigration) had a significant effect on either conflict or discrimination” (Markham and Fong, 1991: 486).

  3. An act for the better regulation of the mines and the government of foreign miners

  4. An act to repeal an act for the better regulation of the mines and the government of foreign miners

  5. An act to provide for the protection of foreigners and to define their liabilities and privileges

  6. Unlike the previous foreign miners’ tax that all tax revenue must be surrendered to the state treasury of California

  7. It must be pointed out that the first legislation that was directly related to Chinese labors was a coolie bill, which was introduced by state senator George B. Tingley. The bill proposed to enforce the contract of labors in China, which would bring cheap labor to the USA for a certain length. The coolie bill was halted in amidst of anti-foreigner sentiments in the mining industry.

  8. An act to amend an act to provide for the protection of foreigners and to define their liabilities and privilege

  9. An act to discourage the immigration to this state of persons who cannot become citizens thereof

  10. An act to prevent the further immigration of Chinese or Mongolians to the state

  11. Approximate 1200 Chinese died at the Promontory junction in Utah (Tsai, 1986: 17).

  12. An act to prohibit the coolie trade

  13. See Lucibello (2014) for a general discussion of the Panic of 1873.

  14. The percentage of Chinese workers in the clothing industry is computed from the appendix V from Chiu (1967)

  15. There were six shoe factories in San Francisco in 1869. Workers in those factories were mostly affiliated with the Knight of St. Crispin (Cross 1935: 57). Shoemaking manufacturing was one of the occupations that faced intense competition from the national market.

  16. Most of the anti-coolie clubs of San Francisco and labor organizations were in the manufacturing sector.

  17. See Cross (1935: 81–82) for a list of state legislations in the 1870s. Most anti-Chinese proposals were struck down due to the concern of breaching the Burlingame Treaty, which would endanger the trade with China (e.g., see Cal State Senate Journal 1871, 438).

  18. See Assemblyman McMurray’s proposal for an example of such instruction in the beginning of the 1870s (California State Assembly Journal 1870: 101).

  19. An act to restrict the immigration of Chinese to the USA. The bill aimed to restrict the immigration of Chinese and abrogate the Burlingame Treaty by limiting the number of Chinese passengers to fifteen, which a ship may carry to the USA on any one voyage.

  20. Interestingly, Garfield was a supporter of Hayes’s veto on the restriction bill prior to the election (Hune 1982).


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Correspondence to Linan Peng.

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Peng, L. The Political Economy of the Anti-Chinese Movement in California in the Nineteenth Century. J Econ Race Policy 5, 13–24 (2022).

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