The New Yellow Peril: 100 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act
History has taught us that racialized communities have much to fear when national security implicates their identities
As we mark the 100 year anniversary of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act, we must acknowledge an underlying fear and anxiety that continues to allow ethnocultural identities to be seen as national security threats.
The Act was a piece of racist, anti-Chinese legislation that toughened existing laws like the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, which included various ‘head taxes’, among other measures to discourage immigration from China. It prohibited immigrant spouses and children from joining the predominantly male Chinese population in Canada, and required all Chinese persons living in Canada, even those born here, to register with the government and to carry certificates with photo identification, or risk fines, detainment, or deportation.
Societies often lapse into ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ camps in moments of threat or opportunity. Despite our ongoing collective work toward repair, reconciliation, and building with equity in mind, Canada is no exception. We did it to Chinese Canadians 100 years ago, we did it to Japanese Canadians during World War Two, we did it to Muslims after 9/11 and have continued to repeat this tragic and unnecessary pattern with others.
One hundred years since the Chinese Exclusion Act, we are in the midst of another wave of anti-Asian racism. Every day in the news we hear about Chinese interference, election tampering, intellectual property theft, alleged links between academic research and military operations, and more.
Some of these allegations may need to be investigated and addressed. But the collateral damage of deploying public policy in response to fear falls on the necks of racialized communities far too often. After 9/11, Muslims were seen as a legitimate collective enemy. Policies such as the ‘no fly’ list, Bill C-51, and ideas such as banning Sharia law and so-called ‘barbaric cultural practices’ all had racist impacts on innocent people, deepening a culture of mutual distrust and suspicion.
I see the concerning trend of what happened to Muslims two decades ago and many communities before that repeating itself today with Chinese Canadians. Fear of foreign interference is driving calls for a registry. Fear of research militarization drove a ban on academic partnerships even for commercial or environmental joint scholarship. Election tampering accusations are driving politicians to distance themselves from each other.
It’s a very slippery slope that we are moving down, all out of fear.
I recently heard from a young woman getting terrorised by border agents with questions of whether she was a spy for the Chinese government. I heard from a tenured professor doing important research, getting dropped from funding applications because the team didn’t want their presence to raise any flags.The way communities carrying the model minority burden often react is to go silent and withdraw. Don’t talk about it. Ride it out. Don’t cause trouble.
Beyond that, there is deafening silence, because even those who want to speak up and disassociate themselves from the actions of the Chinese government, may have family members or business partners there and that might put them at risk. And for some, China isn’t a demonized villain. It is, or was home, and it’s where family is. It is not a one dimensional thing.
The Canadian Race Relations Foundation (CRRF) came into existence in the wake of a racist atrocity committed by the Canadian government, when Japanese Canadians were uprooted from their homes, detained in internment camps and expelled from Canada during and after the Second World War. Our commitment is to fight racism in Canada and strengthen the social fabric of our society, to prevent terrible histories from repeating themselves.
But the direction we are taking as a country today is very troubling. Time and again we’ve learned the cost of allowing real and perceived national security threats to compromise civil liberties and sow divisiveness. We’ve acted out of fear and taken unconscionable and unnecessary measures against our own.
We’ve had at least 100 years since the Chinese Exclusion Act to learn how to do better. We can not afford to backslide now.
—Mohammed Hashim, Executive Director, Canadian Race Relations Foundation
The CRRF is proud to support important projects led by Chinese and Asian Canadian community partners from coast to coast through our National Anti-Racism Fund, including:
- Asian Heritage Society of New Brunswick
- Vancouver Asian Film Festival Society
- The Chinese Canadian Military Museum
- Centre Chinatown Transformation Collaborative Society
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