“Looking south over the Russian trenches and magazine from the central fortifications of Nanshan Hill, Manchuria.” Russian trenches in Manchuria, 1904. For the United States the Russian presence in China meant a threat to trade. STEREOGRAPHIC PRINT, 1904, UNDERWOOD & UNDERWOOD.

The Open Door policy highlighted the contradictory attitude of the United States toward China, which combined high-minded ideals with blatant avarice and dreams of a special relationship in the pursuit of imperialist privilege. Diplomatic initiatives by the United States in 1899 and 1900 marked the clear articulation of this policy, which shaped Sino-U.S. relations for decades.

Commerce formed the basis for the first Sino-U.S. contact in the late 1700s. The Chinese, then under the Qing dynasty (1644–1912), had little interest in international trade and viewed the United States as similar to, but weaker than, the “barbarians” of Europe. After defeating China in the First Opium War, the British began the “unequal treaty” era with the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. The United States was not far behind. In July 1844 the Qing government signed the Treaty of Wangxia with U.S. representatives, an agreement modeled on the Nanjing treaty. The Treaty of Wangxia was the first of many unequal treaties that the United States would sign with a declining Qing government.

Humanitarian interests entered into the relationship as many people in the United States were eager to change China through Christianity, education, and charity. U.S. citizens presented themselves as friends of China, often by contrasting themselves to Europeans. Neither side, however, was satisfied with the other. Chinese were disappointed to discover that U.S. claims of benevolence were not translated into changes to the unequal treaties. People of the United States went through cycles of unrealistic expectations followed by disillusionment as large-scale trade never materialized, missionaries were largely unsuccessful, and the Chinese had little interest in imitating U.S. political, economic, or social models. In particular, U.S. interests in China were always driven more by a potential market than by the reality of a poor country harboring deep, and often quite justified, suspicion of foreigners. Nevertheless, economic instability in the United States during the 1890s made the China market seem even more important.

The possibility of China’s collapse or its division in spheres of influence by the European powers and Japan spurred U.S. diplomats to act more assertively. Japan’s victory in the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895 raised concerns over Tokyo’s influence. In 1898 imperialist competition for China transformed as Europeans and Japanese moved from simply seeking privileges through unequal treaties to demanding more exclusive spheres of influence—often called “carving of the melon.” The Germans used the excuse of Chinese attacks on missionaries to occupy Qingdao, an important city on the southern coast of the Shandong Peninsula, while the British took Weihaiwei on Shandong’s northern coast. The French focused their attention on areas bordering French Indochina, including Yunnan and Guangxi provinces. The Russians increased their forces in Manchuria and in the port city of Lushun. The Japanese wished to spread their influence into Korea and from Taiwan into China. These spheres not only further undermined Qing sovereignty but also threatened to exclude the United States from commercial opportunities.

Over the next two years the United States crafted a policy designed to seek a consensus among the Great Powers (Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, and Italy) to guarantee equal access to China’s market and resources and to preserve its territorial integrity. The United States advocated the Open Door policy because it provided a framework for business people, missionaries, educators, and diplomats to cooperate. Although such a policy offered an opportunity for the United States to highlight its ideals, the Open Door Notes were ultimately designed to preserve the advantages obtained in the unequal treaties. The notes also reflected limited U.S. interests and capabilities. U.S. leaders were not willing to risk military conflict in order to pursue limited trade with China but instead relied on persuasion.

In fact, the United States could not escape Old World diplomacy, and the United States was as much the transmitter as the originator of the first note. It was a British official in China who suggested to William W. Rockhill, the U.S. Department of State’s China expert, that a note be circulated to European powers to clarify the U.S. position. Alfred Hippisley, an official in the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, had a vested interest in ensuring that he could collect the tariff on imports in a uniform manner throughout China. The service was a product of the unequal treaty system and was designed to ensure that the tariff was collected to pay indemnities owed to European powers. The tariff became one of the most important sources of income for the Qing government. Although the British were seeking a sphere of influence, they preferred to preserve the ideal of free trade throughout all of China. Rockhill modified the British draft and passed it along for the approval of U.S. Secretary of State John Hay.

The first Open Door Note, sent by Hay to the major European powers and Japan in September 1899, did not demand an end to spheres of influence. The United States requested that spheres protect the principle of equal access to the China market by ensuring that all nations’ merchants pay the same tariff and harbor fees. Further, the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service was to continue to collect all revenue on behalf of the Qing government. Most recipients acknowledged the note without making a clear commitment to accept its contents. Regardless of U.S. hopes, because of heated imperial competition elsewhere and concerns about maintaining the balance of power in Europe, the recipients had little interest in a conflict over access to China.

The Boxer Rebellion set the stage for the second note. The rebellion took place in north China, primarily in Shandong Province. Young and poor Chinese men attacked foreigners, such as businessmen or missionaries, and anyone connected to the West, particularly Chinese Christian converts. This violence enjoyed brief support from some officials, and the Qing court briefly championed the Boxers when it appeared that they might force the foreigners out of China. In the summer of 1900 the United States, along with most European nations and Japan, sent troops to crush the uprising and force the Qing government to sign yet another humiliating treaty. U.S. president William McKinley and Hay feared that other nations’ troops, especially the Japanese and the Russians, would never leave and would further erode Chinese sovereignty. In July 1900 Hay sent another note that called for the same economic access that the first note had detailed but then added a request for all nations to respect the territorial integrity of China. The second note summarized U.S. goals clearly:

[T]he policy of the Government of the United States is to seek a solution [to the Boxer Rebellion] 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. (U.S. Department of St
ate 1900

Hay neither made threats nor offered incentives but simply stated U.S. expectations. The Europeans and Japanese replied politely. Great Britain was most supportive as London wished to focus on a commercial competition that it was well prepared to win rather than formal empire building in China.

Following the occupation of Beijing by an international military expedition that included the United States, the resulting treaty, the Boxer Protocol, required a huge indemnity from China. The United States, eager to differentiate itself from other nations, remitted its portion of the funds, using the money to fund education in China and to bring Chinese scholars to the United States.

The United States portrayed the Open Door Notes and the Boxer Protocol indemnity as proof of benevolence and a “special relationship.” Although Chinese hoped that the United States could provide the Western education that some felt necessary to modernize China and leverage against other powers, they also confronted the reality of continuing U.S. treaty privileges. In the late 1800s and early 1900s tensions increased due to discrimination against Chinese in the United States. All this occurred in the larger context of rising Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialism. In fact, the Open Door policy would loom much larger in the memory of U.S. citizens than in the memory of most Chinese.

U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt largely followed McKinley’s China policy. His successor, William Howard Taft, created what became known as “Dollar Diplomacy” by attempting to use loans to help China modernize and limit the power of other imperialists. This practice added the unrestricted movement of capital to the Open Door policy ideal of free trade and equal access. Nevertheless, the United States continued to disappoint many Chinese. Following the 1911 revolution the United States supported Qing general turned president Yuan Shikai rather than the revolutionaries led by Sun Yat-sen.

People of the United States found themselves torn between sympathy for China and recognition of Japan’s military and economic power. Without vital interests to protect, the United States was willing to make compromises to the Open Door principle. The 1905 agreement between the then secretary of war William Howard Taft and Japanese prime minister Katsura Taro acknowledged the growing colonial empire of each nation. The agreement between Secretary of State Elihu Root and Japanese ambassador to the United States Takahira Kogoro implicitly recognized Japanese dominance of Manchuria in 1908. In the Lansing-Ishii Agreement of November 1917 Secretary of State Robert Lansing acknowledged to Viscount Ishii Kikujiro Japan’s “special interests in China,” an act that appeared to contradict the Open Door policy.

The Eight Power Treaty, signed in Washington in 1922, highlighted U.S. interests in reinvigorating the Open Door ideal, particularly as concerns over Japanese intentions and capabilities increased. The signatories—the United States, Great Britain, Belgium, France, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, and Portugal—agreed to respect the “sovereignty, the independence, and the territorial and administrative integrity of China” and to protect the “principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations throughout the territory of China” (Treaty 1922, 278). The Open Door principle became a key part of what the scholar Akira Iriye calls the “Washington Treaty System,” a series of agreements designed to preserve the status quo in eastern Asia.

Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and then China proper in 1937 marked the open repudiation of the Open Door policy. But U.S. limited interests and the focus on events in Europe meant that Washington did little to ensure commercial access or the territorial integrity of China. Only as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 did the United States act. In his message to Congress in December of 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt noted that:

At that time [the late 1800s] there was going on in China what has been called the “scramble for concessions.” There was even talk about a possible partitioning of China. It was then that the principle of the “open door” in China was laid down…. Ever since that day, we have consistently and unfailingly advocated the principles of the open door policy throughout the Far East. (Roosevelt 1941)

In this context the Open Door policy was less a driver of U.S. policy than a rhetorical justification for it. Roosevelt’s statement also illustrated a shift in emphasis in the Open Door policy as the unequal treaty era drew to a close. Discussions of commercial access, which meant the protection of unequal treaty rights, faded from the U.S. consciousness, and the Open Door policy increasingly highlighted protection of territorial integrity.

Since World War II the United States and China have been more skeptical of the Open Door policy. For example, influential scholars such as William Appleman Williams placed the policy squarely in the context of imperialism. Certainly the Chinese Communists offered a biting critique of U.S. intentions. In August 1949 Communist Party leader Mao Zedong stated that the Open Door principle was the basis for “U.S. imperialism over the past 109 years (since 1840 when the United States collaborated with Britain in the Opium War)” (Mao 1949). It was the arch-realist, U.S. president Richard Nixon, who openly confronted the complex legacy of the Open Door policy. On the eve of his historic trip to Beijing in February 1972, his annual foreign policy report acknowledged that the “‘open door’ doctrine of equal treatment for all foreigners carried ambiguity in Chinese eyes” (Nixon 1972).

China’s growing power and wealth made the Open Door policy unnecessary. Today U.S. pressure for market access is directed at the protectionist practices of the Beijing government rather than at European or Japanese imperialists, and discussions of territorial integrity immediately lead to the sensitive issue of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland rather than China’s possible partitioning. But the ideals behind the Open Door policy—that the United States was, and is, a good friend to China and that this amity is entirely compatible with commercial interests—remain important to the relationship.

Further Reading

Mao Zedong. (1949, August 30). ‘Friendship’ or aggression? In Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, Volume 4. Retrieved December 23, 2008, from

Hunt, M. (1983). The making of a special relationship: The United States and China to 1914. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hunt, M. (1973). Frontier defense and the open door: Manchuria in Chinese-American relations, 1895-1911. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jiang, A. X. (1988). The United States and China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Roosevelt, F. D. (1941, December 15). Message to Congress on the history of relations between the United States and Japan. From J. T. Woolley & G. Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara: University of California (hosted), G. Peters (database). Retrieved December 23, 2008, from,

Nixon, R. (1972, February 9). Third Annual Report to the Congress on United States Foreign Policy. From J. T. Woolley & G. Peters, The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara: University of California (hosted), G. Peters (database). Retrieved on January 2, 2009, from

Treaty between the United States of America, Belgium, the British Empire, China, France, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands, and Portugal, Signed at Washington February 6, 1922. In Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume 1, 1922 (p. 278). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State.

United States Department of State. (1900, July 3). Mr. Hay to Mr. Herdliska. In Papers relating to the foreign relations of the United States, with the annual message of the president transmitted to Congress December 3, 1900 (p. 299). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of State.

Varg, P. (1952). Open Door diplomat: The life of W. W. Rockhill. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Woolley, J. T., & Peters, G. The American Presidency Project [online]. Santa Barbara: University of California (hosted), G. Peters (database). Retrieved December 23, 2008, from

Source: Phillips, Steven. (2009). Open Door Policy. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1647–1651. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

“Soldiers of the Russian empire passing through the gates of Mukden, Manchuria.” Russian soldiers in Manchuria, 1905. U.S. president McKinley feared foreign troops in China would erode Chinese sovereignty. STEREOGRAPHIC PRINT, C.1905, BY B.W. KILBURN.

In a conversation on 23 February 1972, President Richard Nixon, Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger discussed the 1962 Indo-Chinese war, Sino-American normalization, and Sino-Soviet tensions, among other issues.

Open Door Policy (G?igék?ifàng zhèngcè ??????)|G?igék?ifàng zhèngcè ?????? (Open Door Policy)

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