Chinese Americans: Past, Present, and Future

Developments in the U.S., China, and the rest of the world, especially in the last three-to-four decades have undergone great changes. How the U.S. views China, and also how the U.S. views Chinese Americans have also undergone great changes. In order to understand how this relationship may develop in the future and to help shape that relationship, it is important to review briefly the past history of Chinese Americans in the U.S., and to assess the current situation. We then discuss possible future paths and how best to shape that future. This is important not only for Chinese Americans, but also for the U.S., China, and the rest of the world.

Chinese Americans – Past (1850 – ~2010)

19th Century to WWII: The first significant migration of Chinese to the U.S. was in the second half of the 19th century, first around the 1850s with the discovery of gold and the subsequent gold rush to the Western U.S. This was shortly followed in the 1860s by the hiring of large number Chinese workers to build the western half of the first continental railroad.

But these first Chinese in the U.S, were not really Chinese Americans, because U.S. laws discriminated against them not allowing them to become U.S. citizens, to hold certain jobs, to testify in courts, to bring their wives to the U.S., etc. As a matter of fact, such discrimination led to many violent actions, including lynchings and murders of Chinese in the U.S. [1] It eventually led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 [1], the only law in American history to deny citizenship or entry based on a specific nationality. 

However, during the 19th century, there was one bright exception on U.S.-China relationship. That was the law that was passed by the U.S. in 1868 known as the Burlingame Treaty. This treaty changed the U.S.-China relationship that was based on unequal treaties to one based on equality of nations. Unfortunately, Burlingame died young in 1870 when he was on a diplomatic mission to Russia.  His early death, together with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, the delay of the Reconstruction Movement, and rising anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S., led to basically the repeal of the Burlingame Treaty [2] in the 1870s and the passing in 1882 of the “Chinese Exclusion Act.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was supposed to be effective for only 10 years, but it was renewed several times, and it did not get repealed until 1943 when China was an ally of the US fighting against the Japanese during WWII.

It is important to point out that for more than four years (February 1942 to March 1946) during WWII, the U.S. government violated the rights of its citizens by arresting and incarcerating essentially all Japanese Americans in concentration camps in the western interior of the country, an issue we will come back later.

We also want to point out that over 2,500 Chinese Americans of the U.S. Army volunteered to help fight the Japanese in China from 1944 to 1945.

Post WWII: When the Chinese Communists won the civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the U.S. immediately adopted a policy to isolate, surround, and weaken China. The U.S. did not prosecute Emperor Hirohito for Japan’s war crimes during WWII even though Emperor Hirohito was a hands-on emperor and he was aware of and approved all major decisions made by Japan during the war. The U.S. also did not prosecute any of the scientists, military and political leaders in charge of the infamous Unit 731 that carried out unimaginable atrocities against the Chinese population, including vivisection on live people and unleashing numerous biological and chemical weapons.

The U.S, government also forbade the brilliant Chinese rocket scientist Qian Xuesen (钱学森) from returning to China. In a highly questionable decision, the U.S. government placed him under house arrest for five years and did not release him until 1955 in exchange for American pilots captured during the Korean War.

The U.S. China relationship did not thaw until 1972 when President Nixon made his historic visit to China. Even after China was admitted into the U.N. in 1979, U.S. continued its antagonistic policy toward China, by continuing to surround China with military bases and patrolling the seas all around China with its massive 7th fleet. The U.S. continued to use Japan as her front-line pawn to isolate, surround and weaken China.

Chinese Americans – Present (~2010 – 2019)

During the last three-four decades starting in the early 1980s, China’s economy grew at a rapid pace, so that around 2010, its economy exceeded that of Japan and became the world’s second largest economy. Simultaneously China also made significant progress in increasing its standard of living, the infrastructure of the whole country, its manufacturing quality and quantity, its technical and scientific innovations, and its military power. If such progress continues, then China will become the U.S.’ main competitor economically, militarily, and politically.

Although the U.S. has always adopted an antagonistic policy toward PRC, for the first 50 years that policy was more based on a dislike of the Chinese political system, and not as much due to seeing an immediate or near-term threat to the U.S. as the dominant power in the world. However, this has changed in the last 10 years or so. It started with the 2012 Obama-Clinton’s “Pivot to Asia” policy that basically looked upon China as the main threat to the U.S.’ continued hegemony dominance of the world.

This has escalated by an order of magnitude under the Trump administration that blames China for many of the shortcomings of the U.S. This is especially puzzling when it is Russia that has done a lot of harms to the U.S. Apparently, the Russia actions benefited Trump’s election to be the President of the U.S., and/or Russia has evidence of Trump’s illegal/illicit/unethical activities. This combination of reasons caused Trump to look away from Russia and to find a scapegoat in China.

Unfortunately, all Chinese Americans may become part of this scapegoat. In February 2018 in a hearing before the U.S. Senate, FBI Director Christopher Wray seemed to imply that all Chinese Americans, including those born and live all their lives in the U.S., are potential security threats.

Although Trump is doing the most to blame China, one should not believe that the Democratic Party is not also antagonistic toward China. Almost all of the Democratic leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Senator Bernie Sanders, all adopt antagonistic policies toward China. Apparently, it is politically more expedient to blame China, instead of critically examining ourselves to see whether most of the problems we face are caused by us.

Chinese Americans – Future (2020 and Beyond)

Going forward, China and the U.S. are clearly going to be the two most important countries in the world, economically, militarily, and politically. They will be competing against each other for many years to come. The fact that they have very much different political structure and ideology, with the U.S, a capitalist country with a two-party system and China a socialist country with a one-party system, this competition will be very intense.

Using a sports analogy, this competition will be like the final of the Olympics competition or the final of a World Cup competition. Just like a sports competition, the competition could be fair and the team with the best skills and preparation will win, and the results are gracefully accepted by all, including the losing team. Or it could be a sports competition where teams may violate the rules of the game (e.g., using prohibited performance enhancing drugs) or using unacceptable behaviors (e.g., illegally attacking the opponent [3]). Then the results will be challenged, especially if the winner was the team that was involved in such unacceptable behavior.

Although it is too early to know the results of this competition, one probably can draw some conclusions from the following developments:

  • China being used as a scapegoat, e.g., with respect to trade war, or with respect to national security related to 5G or even high speed trains [4]
  • Mass media biases: We are being bombarded with weekly and sometimes daily distortions, half truths, or even outright lies
  • Chinese American professors and professionals being unfairly accused of espionage and stripped of their positions
  • Political leaders of both parties jumping on the anti-China bandwagon

If such trends continue and the U.S. economy falls significantly relative to the Chinese economy, then the following outcomes could happen:

  • Chinese Americans will be denied of equal opportunity competing for academic or industrial positions
  • Those who already hold such positions will be significantly less likely to be promoted
  • Chinese Americans running for political office will be even less likely to win
  • Discriminatory remarks against Chinese Americans will be heard frequently among kids in middle schools and high schools
  • Hate crimes will happen more frequently to Chinese Americans
  • If armed conflicts occur between China and the U.S., Chinese Americans could be accused of being un-American and put into internment camps, a repeat of what happened to Japanese Americans during WWII

What Should We Do? First we need to understand what is going on and why it is happening.  We need to realize that the U.S. is not as free and democratic as it may appear.  We need to mobilize so that our voices could be heard.  We need to join with other groups who may be fighting similar, although not identical, battles so that our voices can be magnified. In spite of the odds, we need to run for political offices

The competition between China and the U.S. is not necessarily a zero-sum game.  While competing against each other, the two countries can also work together in collaboration with the rest of the world on certain critical issues that are important to the survival of the human race, such as climate change, environmental pollution, epidemics, hunger, war and peace.  Through such competition and collaboration, the two countries can learn from each other and improve each country’s system; the lessons learned will be beneficial to the rest of the world as well.  Having a good relationship between the world’s two most important countries can only be good for the U.S., China, and the whole world.


[1] See, e.g., Iris Chang, The Chinese in America, Penguin Books , New York, 2003.

[2] For more information on the Burlingame Treaty, see “US-China Relationship Can Use Another Anson Burlingame,” China-US . Focus, 2016:  English version:  Chinese version:

[3] Similar to what Tonya Harding did during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships”:

[4] “Chinese Subway Car Maker Targeted Over U.S. Fears of ‘Spy Trains’,” The New York Times, September 15, 2019.

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3 Responses to “Chinese Americans: Past, Present, and Future”

  1. russ lowe says:

    You can add that over 2500 Chinese Americans of the US Army volunteered to

    help fight the Japanese in China from 1944 to 1945. There’s more to this

    and very few of the vets are still alive. My Stepdad is one of them

    and now he is 102.

  2. Don says:


    Thank you for your comments. I have added that information in my post.

    Next time you see your Stepdad, please also express our respect and appreciation for what he did during WWII.


  3. RUBY TSAO says:

    The article has a very good history of Chinese immigrants in America. I may add one more thing Chinese Americans can do is to build a bridge of understanding between Americans and the Chinese. A lot of China-bashing in the US came from misunderstanding of China, its history and culture of peace and harmony and to view it as a threat to the West. Cooperation between the world’s top 2 powers can solve many problems and promote peace and prosperity better than confrontation.

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