At the end of the nineteenth century, enfeebled China
was being torn to pieces. Like jackles attacking a rotting corpse, the imperial powers of Europe were taking everything they could get their hands on. Russia
, and Japan
all more-or-less trounced over the country, using military and economic persuasion to gain control of spheres of influence
. With so many major powers looking for a piece of the action, conflict of some sort seemed inevitable. The United States, a latecomer to the realm of imperialistic expansion with its acquisition of the Phillipines
after the Spanish-American War
, looked on alarmed as it seemed they were to be locked out of China. Missionaries worried about the confiscation of their holdings and programs, investors saw signs of market monopolization by the Europeans, and free trade
advocates despaired at what seemed like the certainty of economic lock-outs resulting from rivalries in the region. The powerful press of the United States, famed for its yellow journalism
and hand in orchestrating the Spanish-American War, brought the issue to the American people. With a little prodding, it was a simple matter to elicit outcries.
Secretary of State John Hay, a diplomat with a flair for poetry and prose, took action. Knowing that appeals would only work if made universally and relying on international etiquette for enforcement, he devised the Open Door policy. In a communicado directed to the diplomats of every major power in the region, he urged the respect of "certain Chinese rights and the ideal of fair competition" (Bailey 666). At the same time, he made the note available to the press. The Open Door now became an item of public debate. With such a generally acknowledged good idea hitting the newstands, it would be difficult for European powers to ignore the notice. They would have to respond in some way. The genius of John Hay's Open Door policy was that it forced the nations who controlled China's economic regions to honestly state their intentions. He set up false, but effective dichotomy that any power which did not accept Open Door obviously had intentions to ransack the region it controlled. Act in the best interests of all (including, supposedly, the Chinese), or stand and be counted as an imperialistic thief.
After some deliberation, the powers shot back. They agreed to Open Door, on the condition that everyone else did. Only Italy agreed unconditionally (which wasn't saying much, since Italy had very little influence in China). All seemed to be well until Russia issued a vague response which was intended as a polite rejection. Russia wanted Manchuria, and they were hardly going to let a goody-two-shoes laggard from across the Pacific dictate what they could or could not do. The refusal threatened to shatter the whole delicate balance, however John Hay still had an ace up his sleeve. He capitalized on the vague language of Russia's rejection and instead interpreted it as an acceptance. Triumphantly, he declared Open Door in effect. While a dilpomatic coup, Hay's fudge had dubious implications for the Open Door policy itself. Russia had never honestly intended to honor the policy, and with their violations came me-too skirtings of the policy's rules by other powers. The Open Door policy was thus relatively short-lived, and with the Boxer Rebellion simply died outright.
Bailey, Thomas A., Kennedy, David M., Cohen, Lizabeth. The American Pageant: A History of the Republic, 11th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.