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Scott Act (1888)

After the anti-Chinese riots of 1885-1886, the Chinese government concluded that the inability of the American government to protect Chinese living in America meant that China would have to limit emigration itself. In August 1886, the Chinese foreign office proposed to the U.S. State Department that a new Sino-American treaty be drafted. In January 1887 negotiations began as American politicians geared up for the 1888 presidential election campaign. (Grover Cleveland had won a razor-thin victory in 1884, while losing the electoral votes of California, Oregon, Nevada, and Colorado.)

The United States originally wanted Chinese immigration suspended for thirty years and a prohibition of all certified Chinese residents in America from returning to the U.S. after visiting China. The Chinese agreed to suspend new emigration for twenty years and to forbid the return of Chinese-American laborers who visited China, unless they had property, financial claims, or family in the U.S. The Chinese government called on the U.S. to provide better protection of resident Chinese and indemnities in cases of future outbreaks of anti-Chinese violence. Negotiations were difficult, but an accord was finally reached in March 1888. The Bayard-Zhang Treaty prohibited Chinese immigration or the return of Chinese laborers to the U.S. for twenty years, unless the laborers had assets worth at least $1,000 or immediate family living in America. The United States government agreed to protect Chinese people and property in America.
The Bayard-Zhang Treaty was greeted with tremendous opposition in China, particularly in Kwangtung province from where most Chinese immigrants to America originated. The diplomatic agreement was criticized in newspaper editorials and vilified in mass demonstrations. Chinese in America also denounced it. Consequently, the Chinese government refused to ratify the treaty unless the period of suspension was shortened and more exceptions were allowed for the return of Chinese laborers.
With the Bayard-Zhang Treaty in doubt, Congress acted unilaterally by passing the Scott Act, signed by President Cleveland on October 1, 1888. Introduced by Representative William Scott of Pennsylvania, chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee, it permanently banned the immigration or return of Chinese laborers to the United States and ended the certification (exit visa) process. The bill passed the House unanimously and met only slight resistance in the Senate (for legislatively undermining diplomatic negotiations). Mass demonstrations in California celebrated the new law. About 20,000 Chinese had left the U.S. temporarily for China and were refused reentry (including about 600 who were already traveling to America when the legislation was enacted). The Supreme Court upheld the Scott Act. The Chinese government, however, refused to recognize its legitimacy.
Sources consulted:

Charles J. McClain, In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994)

Shih-Shan Henry Tsai, The Chinese Experience in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986)


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