Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 June 2012
Word of California's exclusion of overseas Chinese found its way to China's ports through the circulation of cultural production at the end of the nineteenth century. Representations of US hostility and Chinese hardship played a crucial role in provoking a Chinese urban public already enraged by images of an unjust world under Euro-American imperialism, and by a Qing state powerless in the face of such perceived injustice. For many, the aggression of American capitalism was increasingly linked to the weakness of the Qing court. Burgeoning was a frustrated public pushing for hopes of a more equal global exchange. Thus while the Qing court and the US were negotiating a renewal of the Chinese Exclusion Treaty in 1905, American goods were boycotted on the streets of Shanghai by an agitated urban public demanding just treatment of their overseas expatriates turned compatriots. Though failing to make much of an impact on US policies, the boycott more or less succeeded in forming an alliance between a Chinese urban public and the Chinese diasporas, a cross-Pacific coalition tightened, if only temporarily, by desires for a fairer global imaginary.
While debates over Chinese exclusion in mainstream American discourse at the time often revolved around the problem of Chinese labour, what was at stake for the demonstrators in Shanghai, however, was the dignity of their national image and its place in peril within a modernising world built on unequal global exchange.