Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China

U.S. secretary of state John Hay circulated a set of notes articulating an American foreign policy in favor of free trade between China and all nations. The policy, which also officially advocated respect for China’s territorial integrity, was never fully put into practice, but it ironically helped the United States to seize a piece of the China trade pie for itself.

Summary of Event

John Hay’s open door policy represented a milestone in the articulation of United States foreign policy in Asia at the turn of the twentieth century. They were circulated to address specific events. However, their cumulative and long-term implications have made them critical to understanding the evolution of the United States as a world power. Hay, John
China;and open door policy[Open door policy]
Open door policy
Rockhill, William Woodville
[kw]Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China (Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900)
[kw]Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China, Hay (Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900)
[kw]”Open Door” Policy Toward China, Hay Articulates (Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900)
[kw]Policy Toward China, Hay Articulates “Open Door” (Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900)
[kw]China, Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward (Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900)
Hay, John
China;and open door policy[Open door policy]
Open door policy
Rockhill, William Woodville
[g]United States;Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900: Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China[6400]
[g]China;Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900: Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China[6400]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900: Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China[6400]
[c]Trade and commerce;Sept. 6, 1899-July 3, 1900: Hay Articulates “Open Door” Policy Toward China[6400]
Moore, John Bassett
Hippisley, Alfred E.
Conger, Edwin Hurd

By 1890, the U.S. frontier had been declared closed, but Americans were still conditioned to expand. Capital needed sources of investment. Industry required markets. The national ego, convinced that the United States had become a world power, sought an arena in which to assert itself. Mission boards were eager to save new souls. Righteous individuals were eager to shoulder the “white man’s burden” and “civilize backward peoples.” More reflective persons blamed economic slumps and social ills on overproduction and desired wider markets to solve the problems of overproduction and society at the same time. For these and other reasons, some people in the United States became increasingly interested in China as a possible target for continued expansion.

At the conclusion of the Spanish-American War (1898) Spanish-American War (1898)[Spanish American War (1898)];aftermath , a significant expansionist exercise in itself, the administration of President William McKinley had gained possession of the Pacific islands of Wake, Guam, and the Philippines. The United States began to realize that it not only had a new political interest in Asian developments but it also had the requisite coaling stations to provide itself with a commercial interest in the fabled China market.

For some years, Great Britain had dominated the China market, conducting about 80 percent of China’s foreign trade. In part because they could afford to do so, the British had pursued a policy of “open door,” or free trade, in China. During the 1880’s and 1890’s, other European nations began to challenge Great Britain’s market hegemony and its open door. Germany, France, Japan, and Russia began carving out individual spheres of influence, in each of which theirs was the only foreign trade permitted. The Chinese people and government remained essentially passive to this exploitation. Britain resented it and officially reasserted the open door. Unofficially, however, the British realized that despite their reassertions, doors were being closed in China.

The British began to seek allies who would be willing to support the open door. In March, 1898, Great Britain’s foreign secretary sent a secret message to President McKinley McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and China[China] , asking if the United States was interested in concerted action to support free trade in China. At that time, the United States was occupied in the Spanish-American War, and Secretary of State John Sherman’s Sherman, John answer was a firm no. The British continued to pay lip service to the open door in 1898 and 1899 but quietly began to create a sphere of influence of their own. Great Britain leased Kowloon, directly opposite Hong Kong Hong Kong;British occupation of , and eyed the Yangtze Valley as a source of exclusive markets.

At the time of the British overture to the United States concerning the open door in China, John Hay was the United States ambassador in London. Hay regretted his government’s refusal to support the British. In 1899, Hay, now secretary of state, determined to render at least tardy support to the open door. Hay brought William Woodville Rockhill, who was familiar with China, to Washington to advise him, and the two awaited an opportunity to make some U.S. commitment in China. In the summer of 1899, Alfred E. Hippisley Hippisley, Alfred E. —a friend of Rockhill and an official of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service—visited Washington, D.C. Hippisley resented spheres of influence, especially British activities at Kowloon. Hippisley suggested to Rockhill that a U.S. policy statement on an open door might help. Rockhill had little difficulty convincing Hay, and Hay convinced McKinley, William
[p]McKinley, William[MacKinley, William];and China[China] McKinley.

On September 6, 1899, Hay dispatched a series of notes, drafted by Rockhill, to Great Britain, Germany, and Russia, and shortly thereafter to France, Italy, and Japan. These notes, known as the “Open Door Notes,” asked the governments of these six nations to agree to three principles: Each nation with a sphere of influence was to respect the rights and privileges of other nations in its sphere; Chinese officials were to continue to collect tariff Tariffs;Chinese duties in all spheres; and within its sphere, no nation would discriminate against other nations in levying harbor dues and railroad rates. The responses to Hay’s “Open Door Notes” were qualified and evasive. Nevertheless, the secretary of state announced that the China powers had acceded to the U.S. policy.

Hay’s high-level commercial diplomacy presupposed that the Chinese would remain passive, but they did not. In the spring of 1900, China exploded in the Boxer Rebellion Boxer Rebellion (1900) against the intrusion of Western “barbarians.” The United States joined the European powers in dispatching troops to quell the unrest, and on July 3, 1900, Hay sent his second “Open Door Notes.” On the advice of Assistant Secretary of State John Bassett Moore Moore, John Bassett , Hay put the United States on record as favoring the maintenance of stability in China, Chinese territorial integrity, and the open door in all parts of China.

Improving the defenses of the American legation in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

The second of the notes, actually a diplomatic circular to U.S. diplomats in major foreign capitals, merely articulated U.S. policy and therefore did not require agreement from the other European nations affected by the action of the Boxers. It was a stronger and more broad-based expression of Hay’s position on Chinese territorial integrity and the rule of international law. Hay further confirmed his position during the Boxer attack on foreign legations in Beijing, giving explicit instructions to Edwin Hurd Conger Conger, Edwin Hurd , his minister in Beijing, to support the preservation of China’s territorial integrity.


People in the United States, both at the time and after, believed that the open door policy represented a stand by their government against the rapacious European and Japanese powers in China. The reality was not quite so simple and was more practical than high minded. China was not a party to the U.S. action. China never chose the open door. Moreover, indemnities levied by all the powers over the Boxer Rebellion Boxer Rebellion (1900) forced China to borrow money from these same powers, further restricting its independence. The Russians used the situation both to withdraw from Beijing and to solidify their control over Manchuria Manchuria . The third of Hay’s notes, his final statement on the open door policy of the United States, was sent during the Russo-Japanese War and was the result of a German request that the warring nations respect China’s territorial integrity.

The United States, intentionally or otherwise, took advantage of the modified open door to exploit the China market. Later, the United States used Japan as a nominal ally to pursue power diplomacy in China. In a sense, the United States had taken a stand against European colonialism in order to seize a portion of the European market in China.

Further Reading

  • Clymer, Kenton J. John Hay: The Gentleman as Diplomat. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975. Studies Hay’s diplomatic thinking. Chapter 4 gives a complete yet succinct description of Hay’s views and actions regarding China.
  • Dennett, Tyler. John Hay: From Poetry to Politics. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1934. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in biography in 1934, this work is still considered the most thorough biography of John Hay. Chapters 24 and 25 discuss the “Open Door Notes.”
  • Dobson, John M. America’s Ascent: The United States Becomes a Great Power, 1880-1914. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1978. Places late nineteenth and early twentieth century Far Eastern policy, including the “Open Door Notes,” in context with other diplomatic actions of the United States.
  • Esherick, Joseph W. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. Focuses on internal Chinese affairs and the Chinese government before and during the Boxer Rebellion. U.S. policy on the uprising is stated in the second of Hay’s notes.
  • Kennan, George F. American Diplomacy. Expanded ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Contains a section on Alfred E. Hippisley, a major player in the drafting of the first “Open Door Notes.”
  • Kushmer, Howard I., and Anne Hummel Sherrill. John Milton Hay: Union of Poetry and Politics. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Chapter 6 provides comprehensive discussion of the “Open Door Notes” in the context of the economic and diplomatic environment within the United States and with other world powers.
  • Phillips, Kevin. William McKinley. New York: Times Books/Henry Holt, 2003. In his analysis of McKinley’s presidency, Phillips concludes McKinley was a “near great” president, whose place in history has been diminished because he was unable to complete his second term. Phillips describes how McKinley began transforming the United States into a global military power, and how many of McKinley’s goals were later accomplished by President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • Varg, Paul A. Open Door Diplomat: The Life of W. W. Rockhill. 1952. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974. Covers the role of William Woodville Rockhill in the preparation of the “Open Door Notes.”
  • Zimmerman, Warren. First Great Triumph: How Five Americans Made Their Country a World Power. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. John Hay’s activities as secretary of state to Presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt are examined in this study of five people who helped make America an international power at the start of the twentieth century.

Second Opium War

China’s Self-Strengthening Movement Arises

Sino-Japanese War

Scramble for Chinese Concessions Begins

Boxer Rebellion

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