The 1905 anti-American boycott as a transnational Chinese movement.

Author:Larson, Jane Leung
Position:1D Paper

That Chinese living overseas have had a crucial impact on China's political development is only slowly being acknowledged by scholars. More than a decade ago, Harvard historian Tu Wei-ming's provocatively termed "transformative potential of the periphery" referred to the influence of overseas Chinese dissidents (the "periphery") on Chinese politics (the "center"). Tu speculated that when China's central government is weak and ineffectual, Chinese activists overseas can take the initiative to set the political and intellectual agenda for their homeland. (1)

The history of China has generally been studied in isolation from the history of overseas Chinese, both by historians of China and historians of overseas Chinese. The two fields of study usually are subsumed under different broad disciplines (history versus ethnic studies), with research disseminated through separate professional associations and journals. Multidisciplinary thinkers who go beyond these boundaries have been rare. Among them are philosopher/ historian Tu, whose book The Living Tree explored the concept of "Cultural China," and anthropologist/historian Arif Dirlik, who, in writing about Chinese transnationalism, noted that "with a few notable exceptions, Chinese overseas have long been kept out of the study of 'China.' ... Chinese overseas have played a significant role in the unfolding of mainland history since the nineteenth century." (2)

Dirlik goes on to cite the 1905 anti-American boycott as one of those politically transforming events that originated outside of China. This paper aims to contribute to a transnational Chinese history by exploring in detail one facet of the 1905 boycott--its connection to the overseas Chinese reform organization, the Baohuang Hui.

The significance of the 1905 boycott stems not from its impact on the U.S. policy of Chinese exclusion, which was minimal, but from its transformation of China's political landscape and of the political consciousness of the Chinese people. The anti-American boycott of 1905-1906 marked the beginning of mass politics and modern nationalism in China. (3) Never before had shared nationalistic aspirations mobilized Chinese across the world in political action, joining the cause of Chinese migrants with the fate of the Chinese nation. All Chinese could sympathize with Chinese immigrants detained for months in wooden sheds, stripped and examined for diseases, questioned harshly, and often deported, their chances for a decent livelihood lost. That image personalized the impact of foreign powers over Chinese people, and, by extension, over China.

Millions of Chinese in China and abroad were moved by the boycott action, which they learned about in newspapers or novels if they could read or in speeches, plays, and songs if they could not. Boycott rallies attracted thousands. Merchants stopped buying and selling American products, or if they refused, boycott committees put on the pressure. A number of local and imperial officials sympathized with the movement, but they did not lead it in any way.

The boycott's power is revealed by the apprehension provoked in both the American and Chinese governments about the growing weight of Chinese public opinion, with its potential to resist foreign abuses on the one hand and to turn against the Qing court on the other. From the very beginning of the movement, the boycott ideology linked China's weakness with American imperialism. A strong China would have been able to protect its people overseas, the argument went. Furthermore, during negotiations in 1905 over the renewal of an Exclusion treaty between the United States and China, Chinese Americans feared that their government would be too weak to stand up to the American government, even though the Qing court had stated it did not want to sign the treaty. Baohuang Hui Vice President Liang Qichao argued for a boycott of American goods because "if the power of the citizens does not provide a back-up force, the government still might timidly bungle matters." (4)

In fact, both reformers and revolutionaries found the boycott fertile ground to pitch their broader political messages, and boycott leaders became players in the constitutional and revolutionary movements that would follow. For example, ideas of popular sovereignty that had been introduced by the Baohuang Hui in the years before the boycott, became common currency during the boycott movement as a result of Baohuang Hui publicity and remained at the core of the constitutionalist movement that continued the political transformation begun by the boycott. The 1905 boycott was followed by a 1908 boycott against Japanese goods (see below), in which the Baohuang Hui became increasingly assertive in advocating political reform and connecting it to the boycott message. With its widely accepted nationalistic ideology that gave precedence to people over governments, the 1905 boycott heralded a change in consciousness that would ultimately lead to overthrowing the Qing.

Was the 1905 boycott a Chinese American protest? Or a Chinese protest? I argue that analysis of the boycott that disregards its international context is misleading and that the 1905 boycott must be seen as a transnational Chinese protest. Indeed, Ling-chi Wang pointed out that those Chinese in America who thought of themselves as American, such as the Native Sons of the Golden State (which became the Chinese American Citizens Alliance), participated little in the boycott because they saw no reason to ask the Chinese government to intervene on their behalf. (5) For most Chinese in America in 1905, however, opportunities in the American political structure (and legal system) were diminishing with the continued tightening of the Exclusion policy, and a mass protest would have been impossible. On the other hand, they had the freedom to organize political associations such as the Chinese Empire Reform Association--which could not openly operate in Qing China--making possible the growth of powerful organizations that could aid and abet movements inside China. It was only through transnational means that Chinese could effectively promote their cause.

In a paper given in 1999 at the Sixth Chinese American Studies Conference in San Diego and published in 2002, (6) I presented a detailed case for the pivotal role of the Baohuang Hui in shaping the boycott movement. This paper used the Tom Leung (Tan Zhangxiao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) collection of documents at UCLA (7) to show how the Baohuang Hui's highly organized, transnational network of perhaps 70,000 members, was key to the boycott's initiation and strength. The Baohuang Hui widely publicized the idea of a boycott beginning in 1903, mobilized Shanghai merchants and pressured Qing officials to support the boycott, articulated the meaning of the boycott for the Chinese nation and people, and sustained the movement through continual financial support from its members and the dissemination of key ideology and information through its newspapers. The present paper takes a broader approach to the boycott by seeking to explore its transnational characteristics and again relies on the Tom Leung papers and focuses on the Baohuang Hui's boycott activities.

The Tom Leung papers are significant in revealing new information about the Baohuang Hui's role in initiating and sustaining the boycott. The organization's president, the exiled reformer Kang Youwei, spent much of 1905 with Los Angeles Baohuang Hui leader Tom Leung, having arrived in the United States in February, after years of being thwarted by the Exclusion policy. The Tom Leung collection includes several important letters written to Kang about the boycott as well as group letters sent to Baohuang Hui leaders worldwide.

Briefly, the direct links of the Baohuang Hui to the call for a boycott are as follows: In late April or early May, Kang sent a telegram from Los Angeles to Baohuang Hui leaders in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Yokohama telling them of the imminent negotiations over the Exclusion treaty in Beijing. "This is a matter of life and death," he wrote, and he called for the leaders to "organize a rally and urge everyone to send telegrams to our government and to provincial governors appealing for help." (8) Coordinating the response was Baohuang Hui Vice President Liang Qichao in Yokohama, who reported that "I have had constant and urgent communications with Shanghai and Hong Kong by letter and telegram to discuss how to handle this problem." Recalling the 1903 proposal by Baohuang Hui newspaper editor Chen Yikan for a boycott to protest the Exclusion policy, Liang deemed this "the best foreign affairs strategy," and Shanghai, "the number one commercial city in China," was chosen to initiate the boycott. The Baohuang Hui was represented in Shanghai by the small but influential newspaper, Shi Bao [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], which had been founded by Liang in 1904. "I had the paper publish the telegram from President Kang and every day write articles to explain and criticize, as well as describe in detail the importance of this matter." Furthermore, hitherto undocumented contacts took place between Shi Bao staff members and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce, setting off the boycott. These contacts are described by Liang and in two letters from Shi Bao staff. The editor, Luo Xiaogao, writes that after receiving Kang's telegram, "first, we talked secretly...

To continue reading