Expert Profile ExpertProfile L.Ling-chi Wang L. Ling-chi Wang is a nationally and internationally known Chinese American scholar, educator, institution builder, policy advocate for Chinese Americans and Asian Americans for over four decades.
Mission of the
U.S./China Media
and Communications
Program at UCLA

Our mission is to create, promote, and disseminate a more balanced understanding of the interrelationship of the countries, peoples, and cultures of the United States and China through the tools of mass communication and public education.

Four strategic areas make up the U.S.-China Media and Communications Program, housed at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“The Oldest and the Newest Empires”: U.S.-China Relations Today

By L. Ling-chi Wang

As strange and ironic as it may sound, no country is more alarmed by China’s rise than the most powerful nation of the world today, the U.S. (Since the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the U.S. sense of vulnerability can hardly be considered a case of exaggerated paranoia). Yet, no relation between two countries in the world is more important to each other and to the world than China and the U.S. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1989, the failure of China to collapse and dismember must have been a profound disappointment to those who predicted a similar fate for China.

The unexpected rise of China must have caused alarm and even resentment. In the U.S., it became the focus of heated political debate between the Democratic and Republican parties and among the leaders within each party: who should be blamed for the rising threat of China? Philip Stephens of the Financial Times puts it this way, “China’s rise will inevitably be at the expense of U.S. power. Washington can seek to slow the process with military embargo and countervailing alliance, but it cannot stop it.” The debate centers on whether the rising China poses a threat to the global hegemony and the national security of the U.S., what the diplomatic policy toward China should be, and how to deal with the Chinese American population which is presumed to have direct and close ties with China.

The debate around these three major questions reflects not only serious inter-party and intra-party disagreements based on conflicting interests but also the inherent partisanship in the American political system. I argue that the perception and treatment of the Chinese in the U.S. is a decisive factor in shaping U.S. relations with China just as U.S.-China relations exert a profound impact on the well being of the Chinese in the U.S. In other words, race and race relations play a critical role in determining domestic racial policies toward the Chinese minority and foreign policies toward China.

In short, the treatment of Chinese Americans lies at the intersection of domestic and foreign policies. Race uniquely shapes and determines domestic minority relations and foreign policy formations in the U.S. In spite of democracy and the rule of law, race remains one of the most decisive factors in determining the treatment of the Chinese minority in the U.S. and the conduct of U.S. policies toward China. The following points will help make clear the importance of this connection.

First, China has occupied a special place in the American imagination since the U.S. was founded in 1776. Indeed, diplomatic historian Michael Hunt called the relationship “special” in his book, The Making of a Special Relationship. What makes the relationship special is the role of special interests in the conduct of U.S. policies toward China. To most American diplomatic historians, the history of U.S.-China relations is dominated by two primary interests: trade with and mission to China.

The China trade, or more accurately, “The Old China Trade,” played a critical role in the economic development in the first few decades of the founding of the republic and the early nineteenth century development of industrial capitalism in the U.S. Second, just as important was the self-image of the U.S.: a Christian nation poised to play a leading role in elevating and civilizing the backward countries of the world, especially heathen and backward China. In other words, Manifest Destiny motivated and drove the superior race to help uplift the degraded interior race through trade and mission.

In fact, American desire to convert the heathen Chinese was a national obsession. Rev. William Speer, an early American missionary to China and later, the first Presbyterian missionary to Chinatown, San Francisco during the Gold Rush, wrote in 1870 a 700-page book, The Oldest and the Newest Empire: China and the U.S., which successfully captured the essence of these two interests. The book also put him in an untenable position of having to defend his missionary work among the Chinese immigrants in California against the mounting violent movement to exclude the Chinese from the U.S. That movement eventually succeeded in pushing the U.S. Congress to enact a series of fifteen Chinese exclusion laws, beginning in 1882, which ironically closed the door to Chinese immigration in a period when the U.S. and its Western allies were doing their utmost, including the use of force and unequal treaties, to keep China’s door open to Western trade and missionary penetration and exploitation.

I refer to this early account of U.S.-China relations not only to suggest the contradictory themes of amity and enmity between “the oldest and the newest empires” but also to locate the two dominant sources of tension between the two countries, trade and mission, which continue to shape their relations to this day. In addition, I also want to introduce the main point of my paper: the role of race in the interaction between the two countries throughout history or how the Chinese diaspora in the U.S. was shaped and reshaped by the ups and downs of the relationship between these two countries. If we are to learn anything from history, including the management of globalization, then managing race relations is one lesson we can ill afford to miss or ignore.

Second, the significance of race was immediately felt when Chinese immigrants first arrived in the U.S. When gold was discovered in California in the mid-nineteenth century, “the world rushed in,” to borrow J.S. Holliday’s 1971 book title. Fifteen Chinese immigrants joined hundreds of thousands that went to California, some to seek fortunes, others employment opportunities, and still others, adventures. But, the experience of Chinese immigrants was quite different.

The unique Chinese experience is succinctly captured by the titles of two books on the early Chinese immigrants in California: The Unwelcome Immigrant: The American Image of the Chinese, 1785-1882 by Stuart C. Miller, and, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California, by Alexander Saxton (1971). Chinese immigrant labor was considered indispensable, yet at the same time, an unwelcome enemy. For pre-Gold Rush geographer/explorer, Aaron Palmer, and historians like Mary R. Coolidge, Ping Chiu, and Saxton, Chinese labor was indispensable for the economic development of the western states of the U.S. and a challenge to historians having to explain why a nation founded on principles of freedom, democracy, equality, and rule of law greeted Chinese immigrants with hatred and violence. Miller blames the hostile reception on the largely negative, racist, and derogatory depictions of the Chinese in books and articles written in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by American businessmen, missionaries, and travelers who had gone to China. Such negative depictions, while necessary to arouse the urgency of saving millions of souls in China and thus, more financial support for Christian missions, deeply inscribed racist images and negative stereotypes into American public consciousness.

Sending missionaries to convert heathen Chinese on the other side of the Pacific was good for the American soul and conscience, but allowing an unassimilable, inferior race to reach American shores was unthinkable and intolerable. To the anti-Chinese forces, the only policy option was to use the democratic process to enact undemocratic laws that would exclude and if possible, expel Chinese immigrants from U.S. soil. But for missionaries like Rev. William Speer, Chinese immigrants were a godsend: he could now convert them to Christianity in the U.S. and send them back to do the work of God in China.

Today, the legacy of this American missionary zeal is reflected in the work of American secular missionaries: the single-minded drive to impose American values, cultures, politics, and economics on China and to transform China into its own image, whether China wants it or not.

Third, caught between those who wanted their cheap labor and souls and the incited majority that demanded their exclusion and expulsion, the Chinese diaspora in the U.S. became the victims of acrimonious partisan debates at all levels of the U.S. government and unending U.S.-China diplomatic wrangles over the treatment of the Chinese. For men like the builders of the western frontier, such as the “Big Four” founders of the Union Pacific Railroad Co. and California’s agribusiness, diplomats like William Seward and Anson Burlingame, and missionaries to San Francisco’s Chinatown, including Revs. William Speer, Otis Gibson, and Augustus Loomis, and southern plantation owners in the post-Civil War era, Chinese immigrants were both critical and necessary. The Burlingame Treaty of 1868, dubbed “a cheap labor treaty,” in fact helped obligate China to lift the ban on Chinese going to the U.S., thus enabling the railroad builders and southern plantations to massively recruit Chinese to the U.S. However, the Democrats were able to repeatedly use popular anti-Chinese sentiment to defeat Republicans in several western states, rehabilitate the party after the Civil War, successfully push anti-Chinese legislation in western states and in the U.S. Congress throughout the 1870s, and force the U.S. government to renegotiate the Burlingame Treaty, thus paving the way for passage of the first Chinese exclusion law in 1882. “Chinese must go!” was the dominant political slogan and the objective was to stop “the yellow hordes,” later turned “yellow peril,” from overrunning the superior white race. (To put the exclusionist demand in numerical perspective, there were 105,000 Chinese out of a U.S. total population of 50.2 million in 1880). The law effectively terminated Chinese immigration based solely on race and national origin, and denied Chinese already in the U.S. the right of naturalization, rendering them perpetual aliens.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Fong Yue Ting vs. the U.S. in 1893, Chinese in the U.S. were denied the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. By democratic legislative means, race trumped American commitment to principles of democracy, equality, and the rule of law. The Chinese became the first race to be singled out for exclusion and Chinese immigrants in the U.S. became perpetual aliens, disenfranchised in a democratic country. Domestic racial politics trumped the rights of Chinese minority and influenced diplomacy between China and the U.S. This pattern set the precedent for U.S.-China interactions and the treatment of Chinese in the U.S.

The Cold War
During the first two decades of the Cold War, the McCarthy era, race took on added meanings for the Chinese in the U.S. and complicated the current political discourse on race and U.S.-China relations. China became Enemy No. 1 of the U.S. The policy of the U.S. toward the newly founded People’s Republic of China was basically the containment of China by political, economic, and military means. On the domestic front, race took on a new connotation: every Chinese American became a suspected internal enemy and a national security risk. A new meaning was piled on top of the old problem of racism. The “yellow peril” of the past was reinforced by a “red scare.” Being Chinese American became synonymous with treason and espionage, hence, the racialization of national security. Even though there was no evidence of Chinese espionage and subversion, Chinese Americans, by virtue of their racial and national origin, became a threat to national security and the target of suspicion and political repression.

The above points demonstrate how race and ethnicity defined the treatment of the Chinese in the U.S. and in the formulation and conduct of U.S. diplomatic policies toward China. Just as important is how domestic racial policy toward the Chinese in the U.S. is connected directly with the formulation of foreign policies toward China, a point driven home by Robert McClellan’s book, The Heathen Chinese: A Study of American Attitudes toward China, 1890-1905. The two constantly interact with and dynamically influence each other.

Source: This commentary is excerpted from: “The Chinese Diaspora in the United States: International Relations, Ethnic Identity, and Minority Rights in the New Global Economy,” UCLA Amerasia Journal 33.1, 2007, "L. Ling-chi Wang: The Quintessential Scholar/Activist." See:

[keywords: Chinese Americans & U.S.-China, race relations, manifest destiny, trade and mission, American missionaries, cold war]

© Copyright 2008 by L. Ling-Chi Wang