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By Xiaoyan Zhang, Ph.D., March 2023

On December 17th, 1943, the US Congress passed the Magnuson Act, also known as the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act, which ended the deeply harmful Chinese Exclusion Act that had been in place for 61 years. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Against the backdrop of increasing anti-Asian sentiment and deteriorating US-China relations, the united action of the entire Chinese American community to commemorate this historic event has special significance.

The Chinese American community is already feeling a “survival crisis.” Chinese immigrants and their descendants from different eras, regions, and political backgrounds form a community of shared interests. They need to work together, be prepared for any potential threats, and come to a consensus to defend their constitutional rights as Americans and seek the understanding and support of people of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States, to prevent history from repeating itself.

Pearl Buck, the hero behind the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act

After the Pearl Harbor incident on December 7, 1941, the United States officially declared war on Japan, and China and the United States formed an alliance, providing a historical opportunity to abolish the Chinese Exclusion Act. At that time, Chinese Americans were lack of political power, but a group of courageous Americans led by Pearl S. Buck stepped up to push for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Mr. Heping Xu, a Chinese American author of the book “Goodbye Pearl S. Buck,” described this little-known history as follows:

“…Pearl S. Buck and her husband, Mr. Vaux, disregarded the extreme opposition of the conservative forces in the United States and took the lead in loudly calling for the abolition of the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1943, the Buck couple established the ‘ Citizens Committee to Repeal Chinese Exclusion,’ with Mr. Vaux as chairman and Pearl S. Buck as the spokesperson. Members of the committee, together with people from all walks of life in the United States, exerted pressure on Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act. They not only worked hard to persuade congressmen from a moral standpoint but also emphasized the important position of China in the US-Japan war. Under the strong demand of the American social justice forces represented by Pearl S. Buck, the US House of Representatives ‘Immigration and Nationality Committee held a hearing on the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in late May 1943. Pearl S. Buck took the initiative to testify before Congress. She strongly stated the two reasons why the Chinese Exclusion Act must be abolished.

First, democracy is a symbol of pride for Americans. However, democracy requires human equality and fairness, and the Chinese Exclusion Act is contrary to this spirit of democracy and must be repealed.

Second, the need for joint resistance. Chinese people are hardworking, brave, and love peace. It is currently engaged in a difficult struggle against Japanese imperialism. Whether the war against Japanese fascism can be won depends on the persistence and victory of China’s resistance and on whether the United States can win the trust and support of the Chinese people.”

Pearl S. Buck, who grew up in China with missionary parents, returned to the United States and wrote the influential novel “The Good Earth” about Chinese former’s life, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Pearl S. Buck used her influence to actively communicate with President and Mrs. Roosevelt and gained their support. President Roosevelt informed Congress that “repealing this legislation is extremely important for achieving victory in the war and establishing a secure and peaceful world.”

On the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, all Chinese Americans in the United States should learn and remember this history and thank Pearl S. Buck and all the American righteous individuals who worked together to abolish this evil act.

Don’t Be A Casualty of the Power Struggle between China and the United States

In 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Qing Dynasty was trying to modernize through the “Self-Strengthening Movement” by introducing Western technology after experiencing the failures of the Opium War and the internal turmoil caused by the Taiping Rebellion. However, due to the lack of political reform and a proactive policy of opening up to the outside world, it ultimately failed to achieve its expected goals and instead gradually declined under the division and plunder of Western powers. The Chinese Exclusion Act was not aimed at the declining Qing dynasty but was legislation that sacrificed the rights of Chinese people in America to satisfy the economic and political needs of certain interest groups in the United States. It was blatant racial discrimination.

140 years later, China has become the world’s second-largest economic entity. Due to differences in political systems, as China rises, the relationship between the United States and China has shifted from strategic allies to strategic competitors. The political differences and conflicting interests between the two countries have led to fierce competition and confrontation. Due to cultural and historical differences, China and the United States have taken different paths in the process of modernization. We hope that visionary and wise leaders on both sides can seek common ground while reserving differences and jointly assume the responsibility of maintaining world peace. At the same time, Chinese Americans must face potential dangers and emergencies, including military conflicts, between the United States and China, participate in community building, enhance collective strength, and prevent possible crises.

The United States is made up of immigrants and their descendants from different corners of the world. When confrontations between nations arise, a certain immigrant group may be “guilty by association.” This has happened many times, such as the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which has worsened the situation for “Russian” immigrants in the United States. After the 9/11 attacks, the Muslim community in the United States was immediately plunged into fear, and the relationship between the United States and Iran also constantly caused concerns for Iranian Americans. Discrimination, suspicion, provocation, and even violence from mainstream society directly affected their daily lives. During World War II, German Americans burned German books and hung pictures of the US president in their homes to prove their loyalty to the United States. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, despite Japanese American descendants volunteering to join the military to show their loyalty to the United States, their families were still placed in Japanese American internment camps. The “McCarthyism” during Korean War also led to the persecution of Chinese Americans.

To prevent Chinese Americans from becoming the collateral damage of the China-US geo-political struggle, the Chinese American community needs to take collective actions and excise political wisdom in protecting themselves against discriminatory laws motivated by ideological and political purposes. The first step is to establish a correct identity positioning.

When the interests of the Chinese community are endangered, all Chinese Americans are a community of common interests regardless of whether we were from the mainland, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macao, Southeast Asia, or old Chinese immigrants who have settled in the United States for many years. When politicians used the derogatory term “Chinese virus” to insult people during the COVID-19 pandemic, and when “anti-Asian hate” appeared in society, we all felt a sense of survival crisis. Only by protesting and uniting together can we use our votes to remove politicians who harm our rights and safety.

However, while protecting the interests of the Chinese community, we cannot forget that Chinese Americans are also Americans and share a common destiny with people of all ethnic groups in the United States. Especially, the connections and interactions with other ethnic minorities enable us to rely on each other and support each other. Only when the United States is prosperous and stable, and social justice is maintained, Chinese people and their descendants can realize their American Dream.

Understanding the difference and connection between the community of shared interests and the community of common destiny, we understand why Chinese Americans must learn to use the US Constitution to protect their individual rights and limit government power when fighting for their rights, which is not related to US-China relations. The Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), led by Grace Meng and Judy Chu, among others, paid special attention to distinguishing between the rights of individuals and the country of origin when issuing a statement opposing Texas SB147: “…we do not oppose restrictions on foreign state-owned enterprises or entities, companies, or individuals with connections to foreign governments purchasing agricultural land or property at the federal, state, or local level. But we strongly oppose any legislation that would prohibit individuals from owning land or property solely based on their country of origin. As the tensions between the US and China intensify, we remain vigilant in Congress to protect our national and economic security while also ensuring that we do not erode the rights and freedoms of individuals in our communities.”

Avoiding the Thinking Trap of Political Hijacking

In the American political environment, individual actions and government actions are separate. Individuals can influence policy and lawmaking through association, assembly, and political participation, but are not responsible for the government’s wrongful actions. Supporting or opposing the policies and actions of the US government is a right protected by the Constitution (First Amendment). Anyone living in America, regardless of their ancestral country, should receive equal treatment (14th Amendment).

The Chinese community should avoid the thinking trap of connecting government actions and individual behavior. First, we must be vigilant of politicians with ulterior motives who use political kidnapping to view new mainland immigrants as “Chinese spies” (the China Initiative is an example). Secondly, the new generation of immigrants from mainland China should not subconsciously bond their personal behavior with the policies and behavior of the Chinese government. For example, some Chinese Americans may think that American citizens are not allowed to buy properties in China, so it seems reasonable for the United States to pass similar laws that prohibit Chinese citizens to own lands in the U.S. The idea of reciprocity between China and the United States is a political competition between countries and is a government action. This has nothing to do with the individual rights protected by the American Constitution which affect the Chinese people living in the United States. Regardless of whether they hold a green card or have already obtained citizenship, every person who comes to America must take responsibility for their own choices, which are not related to the Chinese government. Conversely, Chinese Americans have the freedom to comment on the policies of the Chinese government but are not responsible for the actions of their ancestral country.

China’s development and US-China relations will inevitably affect the lives of Chinese Americans, but the main determinants of the status and prosperity of Chinese people in America are their own efforts and the progress of American society. Whether to return to the roots or to take root in the new land is a choice that every Chinese immigrant must face. Before the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese people were not allowed to become citizens, and early Chinese laborers could only return to their ancestral land. After the immigration law reform of 1965, modern immigrants who came to America were more likely to take root. If personal behavior and government behavior are politically kidnapped, Chinese immigrants may subconsciously feel guilty, thinking that settling in America is a political betrayal and cultural uprooting.

In fact, this is a misunderstanding caused by political kidnapping. Today’s America is a diverse and inclusive immigrant country. Becoming an American does not mean being assimilated into the white culture but accepting the founding principle of “all men are created equal” and “self-governing by people of equal” under the system of checks and balances in a democracy. Chinese immigrants who take root are carrying the seeds of Chinese civilization, and through political participation, they promote multi-ethnic democracy in the United States and add enrich the diverse culture of America with Chinese cultural elements. This is not a betrayal or forgetting of one’s ancestral culture, but a way of spreading Chinese culture and making a contribution to American society.

Collaborate with Positive Forces from all parties

From the history of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, we can see the important role played by American justice represented by individuals such as Pearl S. Buck in advocating for the rights and interests of the Chinese people. In order to prevent a repetition of this history, the Chinese American community cannot fight alone. In addition to seeking strength in unity among us, we must also learn to break down barriers, proactively communicate with other ethnic groups and mainstream society, and engage, cooperate, and integrate. On this point, Dr. Zhida Song, who has been involved in community service for many years, has a deep understanding.

After reviewing the struggles of early Chinese laborers in dealing with language barriers, cultural differences, and discrimination from mainstream society, Dr. Song observed that with the rapid increase of the Chinese population, there has been a new phenomenon of Chinese clustering in urban areas. People can now meet all their needs within the Chinese community without having to speak English. This kind of clustering has evolved from a necessity for survival to a comfortable choice, often associated with preserving ethnic culture. However, the downside of this kind of clustering is that it reduces the opportunities for Chinese people to communicate, understand and learn from other ethnic groups. Dr. Song further pointed out that as immigrants and minorities, the lack of in-depth knowledge of the language and mainstream culture will inevitably affect their career development. As a minority ethnic group, while firmly opposing any form of racial discrimination, we should also break down barriers, broaden our horizons, objectively examine our strengths and weaknesses, use all opportunities to learn from other ethnic groups, and gradually become active participants in American politics and social life.

Dr. Song’s view is insightful. In a country like the United States, where democracy is based on citizens’ independent thinking and political participation, we do not rely on a particular party or leader, but rather on the majority of American people with conscience, judgment, and a sense of justice from all social classes and ethnic groups. In a democratic system of checks and balances, social justice and progress are achieved through struggle, alliances, and competition among various political forces. In the United States, there are 7.6 million Jews, who only make up 2.4% of the total population (2020 census), but they have achieved a far greater status and influence than their population proportion in mainstream society. One important reason is that they not only unite internally to fight for their own rights and interests as a group, but also collaborate with other ethnic groups, participate in civil rights movements, oppose all forms of racial discrimination, and promote equality and justice for all. Therefore, “our future does not lie in continuing to cluster in comfort zones, nor in criticizing American society from the sidelines, nor in opposing any ethnic group. Our future lies in actively communicating and participating in the mainstream, contributing the wisdom and talents of Chinese Americans, and becoming part of the new mainstream society. Communication leads to understanding, understanding generates trust, trust establishes respect, and respect produces a willingness to cooperate. Chinese people can only change their image, elevate their status, enhance their influence, and become part of the new mainstream society by forming alliances and cooperating with other ethnic groups and actively participating in the process of American democracy.”

Full-scale Political Engagement to Prevent the Repeat of History

Democracy is about procedural fairness, not outcome fairness. A democratic procedure can still result in unjust laws, such as the infamous “Chinese Exclusion Act.” However, democracy provides a transparent and fair process for people to participate in lawmaking, amending, and abolishment. Science relies on evidence, while democracy depends on procedures. The process of self-governance from the bottom up is a necessary step, and any group that does not participate will inevitably be excluded and subject to the fate of being “the meat on others’ cutting board.” Understanding this point makes it clear that participation is the only way forward.

In the next 20 years, as the American population structure is transformed into a multiethnic society without a dominant racial group, it is in the fundamental interest of the Chinese community to gain equal political representation, voice, access to public resources, and legal protection like all other racial/ethnic groups. Chinese Americans can only effectively prevent the recurrence of discriminatory laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act by sitting together with other ethnic groups at the table to participate in legislative decision-making, law enforcement, and judicial procedures. For laws that discriminate against Chinese people, we need to participate in the entire legislative process, prevent problems before they arise, disrupt the process during the legislation, and fight to abolish the law after it is passed.

Take Precautions in Advance

In a democratic system, elected officials must pay attention to public opinion in order to win votes. The danger is that unscrupulous politicians may mislead public opinion, incite extreme emotions under specific historical conditions, and push to harm a particular ethnic group, leading to social injustice. Therefore, minority groups facing potential crises need to be prepared and actively counteract emerging extreme sentiments to prevent danger before it occurs.

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, how to treat Muslim Americans became an immediate focus of attention in the U.S. The historical memory of the Japanese internment camps during World War II made Muslim community leaders deeply concerned, and they immediately contacted the White House to directly communicate with then-President George W. Bush. On September 17, 2001, President Bush personally visited a Muslim mosque in Washington DC and gave a speech, pointing out that peace is at the core value of Islamic teachings, and that Muslim Americans have made contributions to the United States in various fields and love America just like himself.

The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic sparked hostility toward Chinese Americans among some Americans. Former President Trump’s repeated use of the term “China virus” helped fuel “Asian hatred,” causing great harm to the Chinese American community. Asian American community organizations united in action and fought back comprehensively. The New York “Against Asian Hatred” march, initiated by the Asian American Rights Protection Alliance, was a typical grassroots organizational voice of resistance. Professors who set up databases to collect reports of “hate incidents,” various advocacy groups continuing to speak out and publish data, expressed the anger of professional elites. The Asian American Business Alliance, which published a full-page “Enough” open letter in the Wall Street Journal, is a model of resistance in the business community. Chinese American Congressman Grace Meng, responding to public opinion, drafted the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which was passed by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Biden on May 20, 2021, to investigate and sanction hate crimes triggered by the pandemic.

Strangle in the Process

In a democratic legislation system, the legitimacy of the results is established by a fair and transparent process. The legislative process of all levels of government in the United States must be transparent, and provide channels for citizen participation. Every elected representative has the right to propose legislation, the content of the bill is made public, and public opinions are heard. The bill can be modified or abandoned. If not abandoned, it is submitted to the parliament for discussion, and either passed or rejected. Once passed, it is signed by the heads of government at appropriate levels and becomes law. A significant proportion of bills are abandoned during the legislative process due to strong opposition and die in the embryonic stage. Therefore, actively participating in the legislative process and forming strong opposition to bills that harm the interests of the Chinese can strangle them in the legislative process.

The recent opposition to the Texas SB147 bill and movements for similar bills in 11 other states are good examples.

The SB147 bill proposed by three Texas legislators on November 14, 2022, limited the purchase of the real estate in Texas by citizens of four countries, including China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, on national security grounds. Recently, 11 other states have also enacted similar bills, and the Chinese community is shrouded in gloom for a time.

This politically motivated legislation directly endangers the rights and interests of Chinese living in the United States, especially green card holders, students, and overseas Chinese engaged in economic and trade activities. Lillian Sing and Julie Tang, two former female judges of the San Francisco Superior Court, sharply pointed out, “We believe that SB147 and similar bills in other states violate the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment and Chapter 6 of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. They not only violate the basic principles of fairness and equality guaranteed by our constitution but also violate our country’s most basic morals and sense of justice. They shamefully regress to the darkest, ugliest, and most abominable period of our past – a period we thought we had survived, and we thought our country had rid itself of those years.”

To strangle such legislation in the process, Chinese American communities across the country have expressed their opinions in various forms and opposed the passage of the bill.

In Texas, the Asian Americans Leadership Council and Asian Texans for Justice, along with local communities, held a rally protesting SB147, and elected officials, including Texas Chinese-American Representative Gene Wu, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, Congressman Al Green, and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, gave impassioned speeches.

Chinese American communities in the other 11 states have also acted, mobilizing Chinese and other minority groups who have been affected, as well as the forces of justice in mainstream society to express their opposition to discriminatory bills through phone calls, emails, and direct meetings with the local legislators. Many national advocacy organizations within the Chinese American community have also taken active measures, such as the United Chinese Americans (UCA) hosting multiple webinars, the Chinese For Affirmative Actions (CAA) launching a national petition against the bill, supporting local organizations, and actively participating in and guiding resistance movements in Chinese American communities across the country, helping Chinese people understand the content of bills like SB147, the harm to Chinese people, and how to express their opinions to stop the passage of such bills.

Abolish through Protest

The US Constitution was established to regulate government behavior, which is the principle of building a government based on laws. It specifies what the government can and cannot do. Therefore, when an individual or group’s rights are harmed by a law, they have the legitimate right to express dissatisfaction through various channels and to apply legal procedures to sue the government. Then, the court will rule whether the government is unconstitutional according to the provisions of the Constitution. Upholding individual rights protected by the Constitution is exercising legitimate citizen power, and correcting and abolishing unjust laws and policies is a duty that citizens should fulfill. This is what Lincoln called the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The Chinese American community has successful examples of stopping and abolishing government infringement laws and regulations at both the federal and local levels.

  1. WeChat Restriction Executive Order

On August 6, 2020, the White House issued a presidential executive order: prohibiting Americans from engaging in any “transaction” related to WeChat with Tencent and its affiliated companies and stipulating that this ban will take effect 45 days later (September 20). The keyword “transaction” in the executive order includes all users (whether they are individuals or companies, commercial or civil) using and downloading the WeChat app. Once in effect, the consequence will be a comprehensive ban on WeChat in the United States. Over three million Chinese Americans who use WeChat every day in the United States were shocked and angry.

In order to prevent the implementation of this presidential order, Chinese-American lawyer Zhu Keliang joined forces with four other Chinese-American lawyers to quickly establish the “US WeChat User Alliance” (referred to as the American WeChat Alliance) and sue the US government. With a good strategic positioning (depoliticization, focusing only on protecting the rights of WeChat users protected by the Constitution), a solid lawsuit ground (suing on the grounds that the ban violates the First Amendment to protect freedom of speech), wise tactical operations (hiring the best lawyers, racing against time, preparing methodically for all court appearances, finding the most favorable plaintiffs, and obtaining support from Chinese American community organizations, justice organizations, and mainstream media), they ultimately achieved victory.

On January 20, 2021, the US government changed hands and the new president, Biden, was sworn in. On June 9, 2021, President Biden announced the revocation of the presidential executive order issued by former President Trump one year ago because the ban on WeChat violated the Constitution. The lawsuit was agreed to be dismissed by both parties. On October 19, 2021, the US government agreed to compensate the plaintiffs’ lawyers with a sum of $900,000, and the case ended in a complete victory.

  1. Philadelphia City Curfew Law

In 2005, the Philadelphia City Council passed a curfew law under the name of “enhancing community safety,” which prohibited “any commercial establishment located in residential areas from operating to the public from 11:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.” Chinese takeout restaurants typically stay open until the early hours of the morning, providing convenient, affordable, and delicious food for workers returning home from the night shift, and are well-liked by the community. Some crimes that occurred near takeout restaurants were due to the fact that in the dark of night, victims instinctively ran towards well-lit areas, making open businesses the target. This does not mean that the crime is related to takeout restaurants. Chinese takeout restaurants were being used as “scapegoats.”

The implementation of the curfew law directly affected the livelihoods of hundreds of Chinese takeout restaurants in the greater Philadelphia area. In opposition to the discriminatory law, the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association was founded, representing over 300 members who were restaurant owners in the area. The Association organized multiple large-scale marches and protests, communicating with the government, cooperating with the police, interacting with other ethnic groups, and seeking sympathy and support from all just forces. After unsuccessfully attempting to amend the curfew law, the restaurant association accepted the recommendation of a Korean-American council member David Oh to pursue legal action. Lawyers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund represented 23 victimized Chinese takeout restaurant owners in the lawsuit against the city government for free.

After systematically analyzing four years of curfew law enforcement and citation records, lawyers discovered that 96% of those punished were Chinese takeout restaurant owners, which was clearly discriminatory law enforcement. Furthermore, due to the ambiguous wording of the curfew law, law enforcement officers could interpret it arbitrarily, making discriminatory law enforcement more convenient. Based on this, the plaintiffs brought two charges against the Philadelphia city government: (1) retaliatory and selective enforcement in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution, and (2) the curfew law’s ambiguous wording violated the Due Process Clause of the 5th and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

The federal court ruled that Philadelphia’s curfew law and enforcement were unconstitutional, stopped the enforcement of the curfew law on October 4, 2019, and compensated the 23 victimized business owners for $265,000 in economic losses. The lawsuit achieved a final victory.

Call for Action: Hold a Joint Conference of the Chinese American Communities in The United States

At the historical moment of the 80th anniversary of the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, I and my friends Heping Xu, Yingxi Liu, Qian Huang, Zhida Song, Liye Zhu, Mingtao Jiang, Wenbin Yuan, and Xiaofu Si, who are familiar with the history of Chinese Americans and concerned about future of Chinese American communities, jointly propose to hold a “Commemorative Conference of the 80th Anniversary of the Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act to Prevent the Recurrence of History”, to be jointly organized by multiple influential Chinese and Asian American organizations in Washington, D.C. around December 17, 2023. The conference will invite President Biden and members of Congress to attend, and we hope that the White House will issue a statement on this historical event. We suggest the establishment of a planetary committee for the joint conference, with representatives from the initiating organizations serving as co-chairs of the conference, planning the agenda, and inviting Chinese American community organizations (Civic Engagement, Chinese schools, art centers, foundations, chambers of commerce, hometown associations, alumni associations, professional associations, artist associations, etc.) and individuals of different backgrounds to attend the conference.

In the democratic, free, and diverse society of the United States, various interest groups form alliances and engage in multilateral power balances. The political chessboard is not as clear-cut but is more like the Go board, where the overall situation determines the outcome through mutual infiltration and resistance. When advocating for the rights and interests of the Chinese American community and promoting social progress in the United States, we must learn the strategies of Go. Various Chinese American organizations should not compete for the limelight, status, roles, or seating arrangements, but rather integrate resources on an equal footing, actively participate, work together, and seek support from all sides for the common interests of the Chinese American community, step by step, expanding our gains until victory. This joint conference is an attempt at the Go strategy.


Today’s America is not the same as America at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act. While some people still cling to a white-dominated past, more and more Americans recognize that embracing diversity and achieving multiethnic democracy is the future of America. As long as we disconnect the individual actions and government behavior in our thinking, clarify the connections and differences between the community of shared interests and the community of shared destiny in our identity, choose to collaborate with justice forces from all racial and ethnic groups as our strategy, and stop harmful legislation through active political participation, it is entirely possible and within the capability of the Chinese community to prevent the recurrence of the Chinese Exclusion Act.



Notes: Special thanks go to Xiaoti Zhu, Heping Xu, Qian Huang, Yingxi Liu, Jason Lin, Jianping Wang, Zhida Song, Hua Wang, Bonnie Liao, Mingtao Jiang, Wenbin Yuan, Chunyu Lu, Jinliang Cai, Yingzhang Lin, Xiaofu Si, who provided feedback and suggestion in the writing of this article.