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Americas Open Door Policy With China Beginning In 1899 Essay

Open Door policy, statement of principles initiated by the United States in 1899 and 1900 for the protection of equal privileges among countries trading with China and in support of Chinese territorial and administrative integrity. The statement was issued in the form of circular notes dispatched by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay to Great Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Russia. The Open Door policy was received with almost universal approval in the United States, and for more than 40 years it was a cornerstone of American foreign policy in East Asia.

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In any event, preliminary attempts to Westernize Chinese society from within did not deter further foreign penetration; nor did the subsequent revolution (1911) succeed in freeing China from Western domination. Toward the end of the 19th century, under the impact of the…


The principle that all countries should have equal access to any of the ports open to trade in China had been stipulated in the Anglo-Chinese treaties of Nanjing (Nanking, 1842) and Wangxia (Wanghia, 1844). Great Britain had greater interests in China than any other power and successfully maintained the policy of the open door until the late 19th century. After the first Sino-Japanese War (1894–95), however, a scramble for “spheres of influence” in various parts of coastal China—primarily by Russia, France, Germany, and Great Britain—began. Within each of those spheres the controlling major power claimed exclusive privileges of investment, and it was feared that each would likewise seek to monopolize the trade. Moreover, it was generally feared that the breakup of China into economic segments dominated by various great powers would lead to complete subjection and the division of the country into colonies.

The crisis in China coincided with several major developments in the United States. A new interest in foreign markets had emerged there following the economic depression of the 1890s. The United States also had just gained the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico as a result of the Spanish-American War (1898) and was becoming increasingly interested in China, where American textile manufacturers had found markets for cheap cotton goods.

The 1899 Open Door notes provided that (1) each great power should maintain free access to a treaty port or to any other vested interest within its sphere, (2) only the Chinese government should collect taxes on trade, and (3) no great power having a sphere should be granted exemptions from paying harbour dues or railroad charges. The replies from the various countries were evasive, but Hay interpreted them as acceptances.

In reaction to the presence of European armies in northern China to suppress the Boxer Rebellion (1900), Hay’s second circular of 1900 stressed the importance of preserving China’s territorial and administrative integrity. Hay did not ask for replies, but all the powers except Japan expressed agreement with those principles.

Japan violated the Open Door principle with its presentation of Twenty-one Demands to China in 1915. The Nine-Power Treaty after the Washington Conference (1921–22) reaffirmed the principle, however. The crisis in Manchuria (Northeast China) brought about by the Mukden Incident of 1931 and the war between China and Japan that broke out in 1937 led the United States to adopt a rigid stand in favour of the Open Door policy, including escalating embargoes on exports of essential commodities to Japan, notably oil and scrap metal. The embargoes are cited as one of the main reasons Japan went to war with the United States in late 1941. Japan’s defeat in World War II (1945) and the communist victory in China’s civil war (1949), which ended all special privileges to foreigners, made the Open Door policy meaningless.

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By the late 19th century, Japan and the European powers had carved much of China into separate spheres of influence, inside of which each held economic dominance.  The U.S., coming late to imperialism, held no sphere of influence in China.  In 1899 U.S. Secretary of State John Hay proposed an "Open Door" policy in China in which all nations would have equal trading and development rights throughout all of China.  Such a policy would put all the imperialist powers on equal footing in China and would limit the advantages of having ones own sphere of influence.  As you read, think about how the Open Door policy might be seen as altruistic, and think about how it reflects American political and economic self-interest.

Earnestly desirous to remove any cause of irritation and to insure at the same time to the commerce of all nations in China... [the United States urges all nations claiming a sphere of influence in China to declare] that [all nations] shall enjoy perfect equality of treatment for their commerce and navigation within such spheres.... Within its respective sphere [a nation]... ?

First. Will in no way interfere with any treaty or port or any vested interest [of another nation] within [its own] sphere [of influence]...  in China.

Second.  That the Chinese [tariff]... shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports... within said sphere [of influence]... no matter what nationality it may belong, and that duties so leviable shall be collected by the Chinese government.

Third.  That [a nation]  will levy no higher harbor dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any port in such sphere that shall be levied on vessels of its own nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines... within its sphere on merchandise belonging to citizens or subjects of other nationalities, transported through such sphere than shall be levied on similar merchandise belonging to its own nationals transported over equal distances....

[The United States seeks] the adoption of measures insuring the benefits of equality of treatment of all foreign trade throughout China....

We adhere to the policy... of peace with the Chinese nation, of furtherance of lawful commerce, and of protection of lives and property of our citizens by all means....  [We are committed to] affording all possible protection everywhere in China to American life and property;... guarding and protecting all legitimate American interests;... [and] aiding to prevent a spread of disorders [in China]....

The policy of the Government of the United States is to seek a solution which may bring about permanent safety and peace to China, preserve Chinese territorial and administrative entity, protect all rights guaranteed to friendly powers by treaty and international law, and safeguard for the world the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese Empire.

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