China’s anti-American boycott of 1905

Society & Culture

The irony of the anti-American boycott of 1905 is that many Chinese held the U.S. in higher regard than Europe. But the U.S. had betrayed its own values back home, leading to China's reciprocal response.

This Week in China’s History: May 10, 1905

The Chinese Exclusion Act that I wrote about last week effectively banned Chinese immigration to the United States, first for 10 years and then indefinitely. The ban, which remained in place until the 1940s, was the first — and to this day only — instance of a specific nationality being singled out in this way. Subsequent legislation made clear that the ban applied to all ethnic Chinese regardless of national origin, and furthermore, provisions in the legislation made clear that Chinese could not become citizens and did not enjoy equal protection under the law.

This week, a sort of sequel to that column, from the other side of the relationship. The 1905 Anti-American Boycott illustrates not only the Chinese refusal to passively accept the racist legal regime in the United States, but finds unusual resonance as another anti-Western boycott gathers momentum in China, this time with a much more complex ethical calculus.

On May 10, 1905, the Shanghai Chinese Chamber of Commerce issued an ultimatum that called for a boycott of American goods if certain conditions were not met. The conditions were not met, and that summer, a boycott spread to ports up and down the Chinese coast. For months Chinese consumers refused to buy, merchants refused to sell, and dockworkers refused to handle exports from the U.S.

The boycott was unexpected, but the grievances that engendered it were familiar. Since the arrival of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. — starting mainly in the late 1840s with the discovery of gold, California statehood, and work on the transcontinental railroad — discrimination and violence against Chinese in America spread. In October 1871, a mob murdered 19 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles (detailed in the new podcast series Blood on Gold Mountain). In July 1877, a white crowd in San Francisco burned much of the city’s Chinatown. White miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, killed at least 28 Chinese in an 1885 massacre. Thirty-four Chinese miners were ambushed and murdered along the Snake River in Oregon in 1887. While these actions were plainly illegal, many instances of anti-Chinese violence were officially tolerated, and sometimes even sanctioned: the so-called “Tacoma method” saw elected officials, police, and civic leaders organize to forcibly evict Chinese residents from cities like Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham, Washington, destroying their homes and businesses.

Beyond the anti-Chinese violence in America, the actions of foreigners — including Americans — in China bred resentment, too. The Boxer Uprising, including the siege of foreign legations in Beijing, led to an Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers — including the United States — that occupied Beijing and forced the Qing court into exile in 1900. This was of course just the latest in a string of foreign invasions starting with the 1839 Opium War, but it underlined China’s humiliation at foreign hands, and, for the first time, American involvement was front and center. Although the Boxers’ deadly violence and mystical practices were outside the mainstream, their anti-foreign sentiments were not, and as the Manchus came to be perceived as weak and ineffectual — in part because of their failure in the wake of the Boxer movement — Chinese nationalism that opposed both the Manchus and the foreign powers grew in strength early in the 20th century.

The virulent anti-Chinese racism in the United States and the growing sense of Chinese nationalism were powerful context, but the immediate cause of the boycott was more mundane political pressure. Part of the slew of anti-Chinese laws and treaties that followed, clarified, and intensified the exclusion act of 1882 was a treaty signed in 1894 that completely blocked Chinese laborers from immigration to the U.S. for a period of 10 years. This Gresham-Yang Treaty included a clause that it would automatically renew unless one of the parties declared its opposition to doing so. In January 1904, the Qing government informed its American counterpart that it wished to renegotiate the treaty.

Political lobbying, most notably from overseas Chinese, drove the Qing decision against extending the treaty. Chinese communities in America had seen, and experienced, the racist practices directed toward them, and urged the Chinese government to negotiate a treaty that would better protect them. A trade boycott might force the U.S. to reconsider its approach.

Historian S.K. Wong, in his book China’s Anti-American Boycott Movement in 1905: A Study in Urban Protest, argues that the three main factors that fueled anti-American sentiment in China and gave rise to the boycott — mistreatment of Chinese immigrants in America, exclusionary laws, and American behavior in China — each appealed to different segments of Chinese society. Intellectuals and officials were motivated by nationalism, responding to affronts to Chinese sovereignty. Common people, some of whom had family that had migrated, were motivated by reports of violence against Chinese in the U.S. Merchants, Wong argues, took particular interest in the treaties and exclusionary laws that directly impacted their livelihoods.

Merchants in Shanghai, China’s largest and most international port, led the charge. At their meeting on May 10, as Wong writes, they issued two resolutions. The first called on the Qing government not to sign any labor treaty with the States. The second called on the U.S. to change its exclusionary and discriminatory laws toward Chinese or face a boycott. The resolution was broad, not only threatening a boycott of American products, but also refusal to use American machines, work for Americans in China, attend American-sponsored schools, handle American freight, or provide service to Americans.

The organization that called for the boycott was a new one, formed at the suggestion of the Qing government in 1902 and composed of Chinese merchants in Shanghai. It was significant for many reasons, not least of which was the formal recognition of commerce as a fundamental national interest of the Chinese government.

In the weeks after the resolution, which was sent to merchant organizations in 21 Chinese cities as well as circulated throughout Shanghai, support grew. Merchants in Guangzhou, Changsha, Hankou, Beijing, Tianjin, and Suzhou quickly expressed support, as did overseas Chinese communities in Australia, Singapore, Canada, and the U.S. It was the first time that Chinese merchants had collectively intervened in national politics, and the effects were clear and quick. By summer, the boycott took hold across Chinese cities.

American officials were outraged by what they saw as a betrayal of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and China. Portraying themselves as protecting Chinese interests against the imperialism of Europeans and Japanese, American diplomats demanded that the boycott be suppressed. Provincial officials across China responded differently, depending on their local conditions and personal views, but in late August the imperial government under Empress Dowager Cixi issued an edict condemning the boycott and imposing punishments on those who failed to comply.

The imperial edict did not end the boycott immediately. Zēng Shàoqīng 曾少卿, who had organized the initial Shanghai ultimatum, continued to lobby against the American treaties and encourage boycotts. Zeng wrote an open letter to American merchants, published in the Shanghai newspaper Shibao, warning them that the tension between the two countries would not be resolved until the U.S. ended its discriminatory and exclusionary policies.

By winter the boycott had largely subsided, though it remained in place until September 1906, when activists won the release from prison of three boycotters who had been arrested. Though its effects had been minimal, boycotts became a quiver in the arrow of Chinese nationalists for decades, deployed against Americans, Japanese, and Europeans.

The irony of the anti-American boycott, as S.K. Wong concludes in his study, was that many Chinese did regard the U.S. as more virtuous and honorable than Europe. For that reason, the American actions against the Chinese were seen not just as anti-Chinese, but a betrayal of America’s own values.

In recent months, the idea of a nationalistic boycott has again taken hold in China, this time against European and American companies who have criticized China’s human rights abuses, especially those against Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Here, the twin forces of humanitarianism and national sovereignty are again in play, though this time on opposite sides. The foreign companies are trying to exert pressure on the Chinese government to change its policies, citing human rights, while Chinese consumers, recalling past abuses, see themselves as protecting Chinese sovereignty, much as boycotters in 1905 did.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.