Exploitasian: The Story of Chinese Workers in Gold-Rush America

China’s rise to economic dominance in the late 1900s largely came from its massive population and the cheap labor that it provided to foreign corporations, with “companies like Nike, Apple and Walmart relying on Chinese workers to manufacture their products”. This wasn’t the first time that American interests took advantage of the cheap and profitable Chinese laborers – this had been happening for centuries since the arrival of the first Chinese immigrant during the California Gold Rush. According to Li Qiang, the executive director of China Labor Watch, Chinese workers today are expected to work long hours, for little pay, and practically no benefits amidst a hazardous working environment – conditions strikingly similar to those faced by Chinese workers during the Gold Rush. For the greater part of their presence in America, Chinese immigrant laborers have had to face exploitation by their American employers, constantly submit to their authority, and were subjected to racial stereotypes in American media that justified numerous expulsions and massacres.

In this article, I will be analyzing the history of Chinese labor in America during the Gold Rush through the lens of Marx, Weber, and Collins. First, I will be applying Marx’s theories of capitalism and labor exploitation to the exploitation of Chinese workers, then utilize Weber to analyze the systems of dominance and the relationship between the Chinese working class and their oppressors, and finally focus on the negative stereotyping and portrayal of these immigrant laborers through Collin’s concepts of controlling images.

When the Gold Rush began in 1848, Chinese immigrants poured into the country looking to seek a better future for themselves; by 1852, they totaled 25,000 individuals and constituted “10 percent of the total non-Indian population and over 35 percent of the total foreign-born population”, according to economics professor Mark Kanazawa. They had a significant presence during the time of the Gold Rush, which led to some animosity between the White Americans who viewed the immigrants as competition to what they believed to be their rightful claims to land. Chinese immigrants often took on debts in order to gain passage into the US through a middleman. Taking advantage of their generally impoverished state and willingness to work to pay off their debts, White employers created a two-tiered system of payment: Columbia professor Mae Ngai states that wages were “$3.00 to $3.50 per day for whites and $1.50 per day for Chinese”. Besides the significant differences in pay between White and Chinese laborers, it is the act of paying Chinese workers a paltry wage that constitutes an act of exploitation.

As defined by Marx, exploitation entails the expropriation of the surplus from the workers who made it – in other words, employers take from their employees the products or value they have created and return to them a minuscule portion in the form of a wage. Marx deems this the basis of conflict between workers and owners: the laborers generate wealth and materials through their labor, but are paid only a fraction of what they’ve created, while their employers pocket the rest. Cheap Chinese laborers were so useful to these capitalists that they were even utilized as “ideal strike breakers” for railroad companies, as their desperation would lead them to work for any pay in any condition. History Professor Rudi Batzell concluded that “capitalists had exploited Chinese workers to consolidate a deeply unequal social order,” an order that has created a two-tiered labor market in which Asian-American historian Sucheng Chan notes: “dangerous, menial, and low paid jobs with little job security…became the province of racial minorities, while the cleaner, better paid, and more prestigious occupations…became the preserve of European American men.”

Gold-mining companies, and other related companies such as transportation or railroad companies, grew immensely rich during this time period, highlighting the expropriation of labor from the working class and Chinese laborers, as documented by author Marlene Smith-Baranzini. From this period, we can examine how Marx’s conceptualization of exploitation occurred in the real world: cheap immigrant workers were used to reduce labor costs, thus generating massive profits for their corporate employers. Additionally, cheap Chinese labor was also used against other members of the working class to break up strikes and compete against them for even lower wages. Conflict ensued, and laws were even passed to expel the Chinese – but in every instance, the capitalists came out on top with their mountains of riches, while the proletariat was left with scraps.

In every form of dominance over others, there is always an element of compliance involved. In contrast with the Marxist analysis of oppression from the side of the capitalists, sociologist Max Weber examines this issue from the perspective of the workers. Weber defines dominance as “the probability that certain specific commands…will be obeyed by a given group of persons.” The reason for this is usually because there is “an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience.” We see this reflected clearly in the relationship between Chinese immigrant workers and their American corporate employers – these laborers accept their subjugation and dominance by the American capitalists in order to achieve their own goals of paying off their debts and becoming wealthy. These capitalists have domination over these desperate workers – their orders are stringent and must be obeyed, or else the worker fears losing their jobs and income, which leads them to undertake dangerous work for minimal pay.

The process of domination relies on legitimacy possessed by the authority, which is divided into rational legitimacy, traditional legitimacy, and charismatic legitimacy. The legitimacy held by the capitalist employers in this scenario is rational legitimacy, by which their official position as the employer gives them power over the employee. This relationship entrenches the domination of the capitalist employers over laborers, set in stone by laws and rules that assert their control over labor. Labor is no longer owned by the workers, it’s now owned by the capitalists who determine who works for how long, in what conditions, and for what pay. Their authority is further substantiated by contracts that set the terms and conditions for workers to be employed in their company, which is in the favor of capitalists as demonstrated earlier by Marx. Due to the established rule of the power of the employer over the employee, Chinese workers are under pressure to obey their commands and take on whatever tasks are assigned to them. However, this system of domination is substantiated by voluntary compliance on behalf of the workers – they have to repay their debts and are motivated to accumulate wealth, and as such, they comply with being subjugated by their employers.

The influx of cheap Chinese labor has sparked a negative reaction amongst American settlers. Fearing competition against cheap Chinese labor, American workers, driven by the idea of Manifest Destiny, sought to limit and exclude the Chinese. They utilized controlling images and racist depictions in order to demonize the Chinese and make it easier to levy unfair legislation against them. Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom defines controlling images as “stereotypes that are so powerful they fatten all empirical status differences among a group of people to reduce them to the most docile, incompetent subjects in a social structure”. A prime example of controlling images during this time is the stereotype of “Chinese with long, tapered fingernails, addicted to opium and gambling, subsisting on a few grains of rice a day, and sexually threatening white women,” as documented by Mae Ngai.

Other stereotypes go further, comparing them to a “legion of fiends”, “vermin”, and living in “characteristic filth and degradation”, drawing comparisons between Chinese and African Americans workers – a “negroization” of the Chinese, a phrase coined by Political Science Professor Dan Caldwell. He further demonstrates that by lumping together all racial minorities into the category of “colored”, White Americans are more easily able to draw the distinction between the moral and pure Caucasian, and the “inferior, impure, immoral and probably sub-human” colored individual. The indebted nature of many Chinese laborers contributed to the stereotype of them being slaves or coolies, the latter referring to unskilled laborers from Asian countries.

From all these portrayals, depictions, and stereotypes, the Chinese immigrants find themselves surrounded by a powerful hostile community eager to expel them, which they did through the Chinese Exclusion Act. The sentiment was so powerful that even Abraham Lincoln signed the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862, establishing a monthly tax on immigrant Chinese workers in order to protect white laborers. These controlling images caused people to judge an entire demographic without even meeting or interacting with them in the first place. The lesser status imposed upon the Chinese was so severe that it even led to numerous massacres, expulsions, and ethnic cleansings against them throughout this time period.

The history of Chinese immigrants in the US is full of strife, resentment, and pity. A community of young laborers, looking to make a living for themselves and their families in a nation of opportunity, faced with hostility and exploitation by their peers, employers, and government officials thousands of miles away legislating their expulsion. Despite the wage labor, oppression, and violence committed against them, the story of Chinese people in America did not end there – it still continues today. Though we still face vile stereotypes and cruelty from our own peers and neighbors, we have persisted, and will further endure whatever besets us – whether it be COVID or the US-China trade war, or even spy accusations. Our story may be rooted in misery, but the moral is that of resilience.

(Photo credit: Roy Graves licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

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About Edwin Bai

Sociology and Political Science double major at the University of Washington. I am an ethnic Han Chinese born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley.
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