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Milestones: 1899–1913 - Office of the Historian

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Milestones: 1899–1913 – Office of the Historian

Secretary of State John
Hay first articulated the concept of the “Open Door” in China in a
series of notes in 1899–1900. These Open Door Notes aimed to secure
international agreement to the U.S. policy of promoting equal opportunity for
international trade and commerce in China, and respect for China’s
administrative and territorial integrity. British and American policies toward
China had long operated under similar principles, but once Hay put them into
writing, the “Open Door” became the official U.S. policy towards the Far East in
the first half of the 20th century.

Secretary of State John Hay

The idea behind the Open Door Notes originated with British and American China
experts, Alfred E. Hippisley and William W.
Rockhill. Both men believed that their countries’ economic interests
in China would be best protected and promoted by a formal agreement among the
European powers on the principle of maintaining an Open Door for trade and
commercial activity. Under their influence, Secretary Hay sent the first of the
Open Door Notes on September 6, 1899, to the other great powers that had an
interest in China, including Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Japan.
These nations maintained significant physical and commercial presences in China,
and were protective of their various spheres of influence and trading privileges
there, and elsewhere in Asia.

Hay proposed a free, open market and equal trading opportunity for merchants of
all nationalities operating in China, based in part on the most favored nation
clauses already established in the Treaties of Wangxia and Tianjin. Hay argued that establishing equal access to commerce would
benefit American traders and the U.S. economy, and hoped that the Open Door
would also prevent disputes between the powers operating in China. For the
United States, which held relatively little political clout and no territory in
China, the principle of non-discrimination in commercial activity was
particularly important. Hay called for each of the powers active in China to do
away with economic advantages for their own citizens within their spheres of
influence, and also suggested that the Chinese tariffs apply universally and be
collected by the Chinese themselves. Although the other powers may not have
agreed fully with these ideas, none openly opposed them.

Empress Dowager Cixi (Tz’u Hsi) of China

First, Hay sought the approval of the British and Japanese Governments, both of
which considered the American suggestion to be in their interests, although both
conditioned their acceptance of the terms on the agreement of all the powers
involved. France followed the British and Japanese example. This British,
Japanese, and French endorsement of Hay’s suggestion pressured Germany and
Russia to adhere to the terms of the note, although Russia did so with so many
caveats that it practically negated the Note’s central principles. Nevertheless,
Hay declared that all the powers had accepted the ideas with responses that were
“final and definitive.”

In 1900, however, internal events in China threatened the idea of the Open Door.
An anti-foreign movement known as the Boxer Rebellion, named for the martial
artists that led the movement, gathered strength, and began attacking foreign
missionaries and Chinese converts to Christianity. With the backing of Empress
Dowager Cixi (Tz’u Hsi) and the Imperial Army, the
Boxer Rebellion turned into a violent conflict that claimed the lives of
hundreds of foreign missionaries and thousands of Chinese nationals. As the
Boxers descended upon Beijing, foreign nationals living in that city—including
embassy staff—clustered together in the besieged foreign legations, and called
upon their home governments for assistance.

Photograph of Boxer Rebels

With foreign armies fighting their way from the Chinese coast to rescue their
citizens in the capital, in some cases securing their own concessions and areas
of special interest along the way, the principle of the Open Door seemed to be
in grave danger. On July 3, 1900, Hay circulated another message to the foreign
powers involved in China, this time noting the importance of respecting the
“territorial and administrative integrity” of China. Although the goal was to
prevent the powers from using the Boxer Rebellion as an excuse to carve China
into individual colonies, the Open Door Circular requested no formal agreement
or assurances from the other powers.

Together, the Open Door Notes served the important purpose of outlining U.S.
policy toward China and expressing U.S. hopes for cooperation with the other
foreign powers with a stake in the region. They were of lasting importance in
U.S.-East Asian relations, and contributed to the idea of a Sino-American
“special relationship.” However, because they were non-binding, the Notes did
not prevent the United States—or any other power—from one day seeking Chinese
territory, or acting in any way that was preferential to their own interests,
even at the expense of the Chinese Government. Hay himself even briefly
considered a seizure of Chinese territory, although he quickly rejected the
idea. Although the Notes were not binding, Hay’s successors nonetheless adhered
to the policy of maintaining the Open Door in China. The articulation of the
Open Door policy represented the growing American interest and involvement in
East Asia at the turn of the century.

Ironically, Hay articulated the Open Door policy at a time when the U.S.
Government was doing everything in its power to close the door on Chinese
immigration to the United States. This effectively stifled opportunities for
Chinese merchants and workers in the United States. (See Chinese Immigration and
the Chinese Exclusion Acts.)

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