War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)

(6) The Verge of Partition and the Open Door Policy

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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.

Why did the United States propose the Open Door Policy at the moment when the imperialist powers were about to divide China among themselves? Some believe that this policy spared China from the fate of partition. Is it a valid proposition?

See answer below.

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mainsite_psd_guafen06_map_v6_en-01

By the late 19th century, China was on the verge of partition.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The terms of the Open Door Policy are summarised as follows:

(1) That (each power) will in no way interfere with any treaty port or any vested interests within any so-called “sphere of interest” or leased territory it may have in China.

(2) That the Chinese treaty tariff of the time being shall apply to all merchandise landed or shipped to all such ports within said “sphere of interest” (except “free ports”), no matter to what nationality it may belong, and that duties so leviable shall be collected by the Chinese Government.

(3) That it (each power) will levy no higher harbour dues on vessels of another nationality frequenting any port in such “sphere” than shall be levied on vessels of its own nationality, and no higher railroad charges over lines built, controlled, or operated within its “sphere” on merchandise belonging to citizens or subjects of other nationalities transported through such “sphere” than shall be levied on similar merchandise belonging to its own nationals transported over equal distances.

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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.

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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.

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The Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) ended in France’s crushing defeat. It was forced to pay a 5 billion franc war indemnity and cede the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. France’s defeat, considered a terrible humiliation by the French, drove its thirst for revenge against Germany. Many historians regard the Franco-Prussian War as one of the remote factors that led to World War I in 1914.

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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.

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After ascending the throne in 1888, Wilhelm II actively compete for colonies. Under his direction, Germany participated in acquiring naval leaseholds and spheres of influence in China, increasingly becoming a threat to the other imperialist powers. He was also committed to military expansion, particularly to the navy. In 1898, Germany initiated its massive naval building programme by passing its first Naval Law. Later, it continued to augment its navy by passing four more Naval Laws, alarming Britain. The early 20th century saw the commencement of an Anglo-German naval arms race in which each party struggled to build more dreadnoughts that were more advanced than the pre-dreadnoughts. Wilhelm II’s policies played a key role in causing World War I.

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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.

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During his reign, Nicholas II pursued Pan-Slavic Policies and actively sought to bolster Russian influence over the Slavic countries of the Balkan Peninsula, particularly Serbia. This worried Britain and Germany. In the Far East, the competition for interests in China between Russia and Japan deteriorated the Russo-Japanese relations rapidly. Among the imperialist powers, France was Russia’s closest ally. The Sino-Russian Righteousness Victory Bank was a joint venture created by the two countries.

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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.

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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.

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France, Britain, and Germany valued their interests in China, yet their core concern had always been Europe. Despite their total disagreement over the matters in China, they would not risk starting a war among themselves over their conflicting Chinese interests. Russia and Japan, however, were both situated close to China. They were unable to mediate their conflicting interests in China. Ultimately, their rivalry was settled by waging the Russo-Japanese War on the Chinese soil from 1904 to 1905.   

The Open Door Policy, first advocated by the United States in 1899, was unanimously upheld by the imperialist powers. The policy was reiterated by the United States after the invasion of the Eight-Nation Alliance in the following year. For a few years after its introduction, the policy was upheld by the powers as they were all reluctant - for the time being - to conflict with one another over their Chinese interests. However, new developments such as the Russo-Japanese War, the First World War and the 1917 Russian Revolution eventually gave Japan an overwhelming advantage in the scramble for China. Although the Open Door Policy was never formally rescinded, it gradually faded into the background. While China narrowly escaped the fate of partition, it remained a semi-colony for a long time, and faced the growing danger of being taken over entirely by Japan.

Why did the United States propose the Open Door Policy at the moment when the imperialist powers were about to divide China among themselves? Some believe that this policy spared China from the fate of partition. Is it a valid proposition?

The United States had extorted benefits from China time and again, for example by coercing China into signing the Treaty of Wangxia (《望廈條約》, Treaty of Wanghia) and the Treaty of Tientsin (《天津條約》, Treaty of Tianjin) after the two Opium Wars. While the imperialist powers were trying to divide China among themselves in the late 19th century, the United States was unable to claim a portion due to its preoccupation with the Spanish-American War. Once the war ended, it proposed the Open Door Policy as a way to ensure the door of China was open so that all countries could benefit equally from it. Moreover, after the American Civil War, the United States’ economy grew rapidly. By the late 19th century, it led the world in industrial output and became a well-endowed economic force for competition. The trade policies it advocated - opening doors and allowing countries equal opportunities - was in its interests of businesses in China.

The proposition that the Open Door Policy spared China from the fate partition can be evaluated at different levels. On the international level, none of the imperialist powers was strong enough to claim all the interests in China to itself. The various parties were at odds with one another and had different interests and priorities. Thus, they could neither come to an agreement on partitioning China, nor start a war with one another over interests in China. As a result, at that time, the imperialist powers’ actions allowed China to maintain at least superficially its integrity and independence. In reality, they also kept China in a semi-colonial state by mandating that every nation was to profit equally from China. As this was in the interests of most countries, the ploy worked for a while. Hence, the Open Door Policy did help China avoid the fate of partition.

On the national level, China’s narrow escape could not be entirely credited to the Open Door Policy. Some historians believe that the traditional Chinese belief that it was best to “use barbarians to control barbarians (以夷制夷)” might have been behind the Qing government’s decision to grant all foreign powers an equal share of the Chinese interests, as the government was incapable to defend itself from foreign invasions. This prevented any single power from taking over China entirely, while making it impossible for them to reach an agreement on partitioning China due to their existing conflicting interests. Ultimately, the various powers had no choice but to accept the United States’ Open Door Policy that enabled China to maintain its independence and integrity, if only in name. Besides the Open Door Policy, the resistance of Chinese civilians also played a key role in thwarting imperialist efforts of carving up China.

Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Visual China Group (pictures 2, 7 and 10), Fotoe (picture 6), misc. photo sources.

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