Consumed by a mania to establish foreign leaseholds, the imperialist powers developed various spheres of influence in China during the 19th and the early 20th century. The rough distribution was as follows: (1) Russia: north-eastern China, Mongolia, Xinjiang (新疆) and part of Gansu Province (甘肅); (2) Germany: Shandong Province (山東); (3) France: provinces of Yunnan (雲南), Guangxi (廣西) and part of Guangdong (廣東); (4) Britain: provinces in the Yangtze Basin (長江流域), part of Henan Province (河南), and part of Guangdong; (5) Japan: Fujian Province (福建). The partition and fall of China seemed inevitable.
Preoccupied with the Spanish-American War, the United States missed its opportunity to interfere in the Chinese affairs. Hence, it proposed the Open Door Policy after the war was concluded. In September 1899, the United States Secretary of State, John Milton Hay, enunciated the Open Door Note, which called on the imperialist powers to respect one another’s vested interests within their respective spheres of influence, abide by previously agreed tariffs, and show no favours to their own nationals in the matter of harbour dues or railway charges within their own spheres of influence. These principles were reiterated in the Open Door Policy issued by the United States in July 1900. By then, none of the imperialist powers had an overwhelming edge over the others, making it difficult for any single power to claim all of China for itself. Considering the rivalries among themselves and to safeguard their own interests, the powers acceded to these terms. Thus, China narrowly escaped the fate of partition.
By the late 19th century, China was on the verge of partition.
A depiction of a scene from the Spanish-American War. From April to August 1898, the United States waged a war on Spain to seize its colonies in South America to gain control over the Caribbean. Its ultimate intention was to dominate the western Pacific. Although the United States won the war, it had diverted its attention from the East and deprived it the participation of the China land-grab.
From the left: John Milton Hay, the United States Secretary of State (1898-1905); William McKinley, the President of the United States (1897-1901); Edwin Hurd Conger, the United States’ Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to China (1898-1905). The United States’ Open Door Policy, first enunciated by John Hay in September 1899, was formulated with the aim of safeguarding America’s interests by preventing other countries from monopolising the interests in China.
Two late Qing cartoons about the Open Door Policy: on the left, the United States, represented by Uncle Sam, is putting up a sign of “The Open Door” on China’s front door. On the right, with the key to China in hand, Uncle Sam is urging all nations to open the door to China together.
A late Qing cartoon that depicts China’s escape from being partitioned thanks to the Open Door Policy. The United States, represented by Uncle Sam, is standing on the map of China as figures representing the other imperialist powers pause cutting up it with their scissors. The powers agreed to uphold the Open Door Policy largely for two reasons. First, none was strong enough to claim all the interests in China; and second, it was hard to come to an agreement on partitioning China because of the powers’ constant competition.
From 1870 to 1871, Prussia waged a war with France to unite Germany. Prussia’s victory ushered in the birth of the German Empire and marked the beginning of the long-standing enmity between France and Germany. Pictured is a scene from the Franco-Prussian War that the French troops being hemmed in by the Prussian troops.
Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor, and the Friedrich Wilhelm, a pre-dreadnought battleship of the German Imperial Navy commissioned in 1890. Wilhelm II’s expansionist policies concerned and frightened the other powers.
A mounted Tsar Nicholas II reviewing the Russian Army’s Cossack soldiers. Like the tsars before him, Nicholas II favoured expansionism. This soured relations between Russia and Britain, Germany, and Japan.
Two cartoons about the Anglo-Japanese Alliance: the one on the left depicts a British soldier shaking hands with a Japanese soldier; the one on the right depicts a British soldier egging on a Japanese soldier to confront a bear-like Russian soldier. Britain and Japan forged an alliance in 1902 to oppose Russia, their common enemy.
A cartoon published prior to the Russo-Japanese War. It depicts a diminutive Japanese samurai challenging a massive Russian bear. The changing international order in East Asia and the world in the early 20th century led to the gradual failure of the once unanimously supported Open Door Policy.
Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Visual China Group (pictures 2, 7 and 10), Fotoe (picture 6), misc. photo sources.