Cupertino vice mayor sparks outrage after saying Chinese Exclusion Act was not racist

Cupertino Vice Mayor Liang-Fang Chao chinese exclusion act

Cupertino Vice Mayor Liang-Fang Chao has come under fire for defending the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act last week.

What she said: In an email sent to some 2,000 parents in the Cupertino Union School District (CUSD), Chao pointed out that the law only barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. As it did not ban Chinese non-laborers and Asians from other countries, its creation, she suggested, could not have been based on racism.

  • “Please read the text of the Chinese Exclusion Act itself first,” Chao wrote. “Did the text of the Act exclude ALL Chinese? Did the text of the Act exclude ALL Asians? … Why not exclude ALL Chinese if the basis [of the law] is racism, as some claim?”
  • Chao, who was born in Taiwan and has lived in Cupertino, Calif., since 1999, urged recipients of the email to “not get offended so easily like some people do nowadays.” She stressed that it was a rational discussion of historic events and that the subject in question was the judgment of policymakers “at a time that is totally different from ours.”
  • Chao emphasized that while some discriminated against Chinese people in the past, there are always “good people who are welcoming to immigrants in this country.” She recalled reading that the law was not supported by the rest of the country at the time, including Republicans.
  • In urging people to not be offended, Chao shared that she tells her own children not to be “disgusted” by “what they observe in China” during vacation. “I told them to be humble and try and understand the people there and why they do things a certain way, rather than ‘judging them’ as if we are better,” she noted.

What the law said: The Chinese Exclusion Act came into effect in 1882 as a response to fears that Chinese laborers were taking over American jobs. It was signed into law by President Chester Arthur, a Republican, but was first passed in Congress by a Democrat majority.

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  • The Act banned Chinese laborers — defined as both skilled and unskilled, and specifically those employed in mining — from immigrating to the U.S. for 10 years. 
  • “Masters” of ships transporting Chinese laborers to the U.S. were deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, fined up to $500 for every smuggled laborer, and potentially imprisoned for up to a year.
  • Every Chinese person other than a laborer was permitted to come to the U.S. However, they had to be identified “as so entitled” by the Chinese government in the form of a detailed certificate written in or translated into English.
  • The law, which also barred any Chinese person from becoming an American citizen, was extended for another 10 years through the Geary Act. However, it was not until 1943 when it was repealed by the Magnuson Act, which permitted the entry of 105 Chinese immigrants per year and allowed Chinese nationals already in the country to become naturalized citizens.
  • Large-scale Chinese immigration resumed with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law not only addressed the Chinese Exclusion Act, but abolished the greater National Origins Formula, a 1920s policy that aimed to preserve American homogeneity by encouraging immigration from Northwestern Europe.

Reactions: Chao’s email has since drawn massive backlash in Cupertino, whose population is about two-thirds Asian American. Her own colleagues reportedly distanced themselves from her comments.

  • “The Chinese Exclusion Act was obviously racist legislation,” Mayor Darcy Paul told Patch in a statement. Other councilmembers described the Act as “clearly racist,” criticized Chao for being insensitive and demanded that she issue an apology immediately.
  • Chao’s email also reached social media after it was shared by Neil Park-McClintick, a social justice advocate who chairs the group Cupertino for All. “Don’t think I’ve ever heard someone defend the Chinese Exclusion Act — ever in my life,” Park-McClintick wrote on Twitter.
  • Others pointed out that Chao failed to put the Act in context with other legislation, such as the Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women — among others — from entering the U.S. In essence, the law portrayed them as prostitutes who threatened the institution of marriage.
  • Despite the backlash, Chao appears firm in her position. “It was really a labor issue where American laborers wish to keep cheaper Chinese laborers out, for good reasons,” Chao told Patch of the Chinese Exclusion Act. “We are doing similar things today, through the H1 visa process. We don’t want to give work visas to people that will take American jobs.”

Featured Image via City of Cupertino / Liang Chao Channel

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