My Weekly Reader 6 June 2022.

            Stories of individual historical events, the more dramatic the better, command the attention of readers.  Yet those striking events always happen in some larger context that includes cause, effect, and related events happening elsewhere.  Stepping back from the individual event to see the context in which it occurred provides greater understanding.[1]  The farther one steps back, the more the dramatic events recede as the larger patterns emerge.  Always there is a trade-off and the question of where to strike the balance. 

            During the Nineteenth Century, the West rapidly industrialized and international trade grew by leaps and bounds.  These advances required an improved system of reliable and fair international payments.  Answering this need, the Gold Standard set an exchange rate against gold for every country’s national currency.  So nations acquiring gold got piled on top of the eternal human quest for “the color.”  Fortunately for the developing world economy, there were major gold strikes in California (1848), Australia (1851), and South Africa (1886) among many other places.[2]  Gold greased the wheels of economic growth, while creating individual fortunes.[3] 

            They also created unanticipated effects.  The lure of gold drew in many immigrants from distant parts.[4]  Westerners were not alone in seeking their fortunes in a new land.  In the mid-Nineteenth Century, a gigantic civil war racked Qing China. The “Taiping Rebellion” spread death, starvation, disease, and poverty throughout the empire.  Hundreds of thousands of Chinese migrated all over the Pacific.[5]  Some went to the United States, some went to Australia, many went to other places.  Later, others would attempt to go to South Africa. 

            All these were White-ruled societies busily resting control of the lands’ resources from indigenous inhabitants.  They both needed cheap labor and despised the Asian immigrants who would provide it.  Appearance, language, religion, and culture all set the two groups apart from one another.  The white working class and middle class took an especially harsh view of the “coolie labor” that they believed undermined their own efforts at self-enrichment.  Anti-Chinese violence followed in many places.  Both seeking to profit from this hatred and to restore order, politicians stepped forward to give voice to the concerns of the working man.  The American “Chinese Exclusion Act” (1882-1943), the South African Asian exclusion policy (1880s-1980s), and the “White Australia” policy (1901-1973) all manifested this fear of Chinese competition. 

            All this happened in the distant past and most vestiges of the age in laws have been removed.  Yet people still fear Asian states when they become economically powerful, as has been the case with Japan in the Seventies[6] and China today.  The competition is seen as “unfair.” 

[1] The first two essays in Gerhard Weinberg, World in the Balance: Behind the Scenes of World War II (1981) provide a clear and concise introduction to the essential strategic problems of the war.  Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers: A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later Thirteenth Century (1958) uses a small event—the Sicilian massacre of occupying French troops—to examine the complex politics of Medieval Europe, the Papacy, and the Byzantine Empire. 

[2] For an extensive list, see: 

[3] As Montgomery Burns chortled, “We’ll be rich as Nazis!”

[4] My great-great grandfather had left his family home in Rhode Island for the “West” of the 1830s and 1840s, the Ohio River valley.  When news came of the gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, he hot-footed it to California. 

[5] Mae Ngai, The Chinese Question: The Gold Rushes and Global Politics (2021).  Reviewed by Andrew Graybill, WSJ, 12 August 2021. 

[6] Herman Kahn, The Japanese Challenge (1979); Rush Doshi, The Long Game (2021). 

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