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UPDATED: June 20, 2011 NO. 25 JUNE 23, 2011
An Overdue Apology
The United States needs to recognize its past wrongdoings against Chinese Americans

POLITICAL SUCCESS: Chinese American politician Jean Quan attends a dinner in Oakland, California, on November 12, 2010, celebrating her election as the city's mayor. Quan is the first Asian American woman to head a major city in the United States (XINHUA)

Nearly 130 years after the United States shut its doors to Chinese immigrants with the Chinese Exclusion Act, U.S. lawmakers put forward resolutions in both houses of Congress calling for an official statement of regret. Symbolically, the introduction of the bipartisan resolutions on May 26 coincided with a Senate hearing on the confirmation of Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, a Chinese American, as the new U.S. Ambassador to China.

Passed by Congress in 1882, the Act banned immigration by Chinese workers and their naturalization as U.S. citizens. It was the first and only federal legislation legalizing racial discrimination in U.S. history.

The Act, originally intended to last 10 years, was renewed for another 10 years in 1892 and later extended indefinitely. It was not repealed until 1943 during World War II when the United States joined China's fight against Japanese invasion.

Never too late

Psychologists say the best time to apologize is within 48 hours after an offense is committed. Justice delayed is justice denied, they agree. Despite this, Chinese Americans have yet to receive even the faintest hint of an apology. Their hopes are that the U.S. Government will redress its past mistakes and create a conducive political environment for Chinese descendants living and working in the United States.

In other words, Chinese Americans expect an expression of regret for past wrongdoings to have positive implications for the future. Although the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, its historical legacy has yet to be eliminated, Judy Chu, a sponsor of the House resolution and Chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said in March.

She urged Congress to express regret to the Chinese American community not only because she wants justice to be served, but also because she hopes the U.S. Government will treat Chinese Americans, Asian Americans and other minorities as equals when enacting future laws, she said.

In recent decades, the U.S. Government apologized for a number of historical blunders. For instance, Congress adopted the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, apologizing for interning Japanese Americans during World War II and granting each surviving internee $20,000 in compensation. Then President Bill Clinton signed a resolution in 1993 offering an apology to native Hawaiians for U.S. participation in the overthrow of their kingdom a century earlier. The U.S. Government also apologized to African Americans and American Indians.

These precedents involved injustices in the distant past. American Indians and African Americans, in particular, received apologies for maltreatments they suffered more than 150 years ago. It's no surprise then that the U.S. Congress has taken so long to recognize its folly in discriminating against Chinese Americans. For one thing, Congress tends to focus on immediate concerns while showing little interest in historical issues. For another, the United States lacks motivation to reflect upon its policies that inflicted sufferings upon other peoples.

Driving factors

Relations between China and the United States have blossomed dramatically over the past decade. As it gains a more reasonable perception of China, the United States is coming to terms with China's rise.

In recent years, Chinese Americans have moved up the ladder in U.S. society. Many of them, such as Locke and Chu, have made headway in the U.S. political arena.

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