The Open Door Policy with China: Definition, Summary & Purpose

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  • 0:53 The Age of Imperialism
  • 2:11 Hay's Open Door Policy
  • 2:43 A Pseudo-Treaty
  • 3:35 The Chinese Perspective
  • 4:23 Response to the Boxer…
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephen Benz

Stephen has taught history, journalism, sociology, and political science courses at multiple levels, including the middle school, high school and college levels.

The Open Door Policy was an American proposal that aimed to keep Chinese markets open for all and not allow any one country to gain control over the region. In this lesson, we'll look at the policy's historical background and the Chinese reaction to it.


Imagine a crowd of desperate shoppers sitting outside of a toy store on Black Friday, just before it opens. Imagine them jostling and shoving each other for a front-of-the-line position. What is the best way to calm down this greedy and restless behavior? Most definitely, it is to open the door to all! This Black Friday scenario is not unlike the situation in China during the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, all European countries were eager to establish control over this heavily populated country full of rich markets.

The Open Door Policy was an American solution to the maneuvering among all countries to secure China. It basically said the best way to avoid a conflict over China was to keep it an open market for all. Just like the example of the toy store, the Open Door Policy was put in effect to keep China's 'door' open to trade from all countries.

The Age of Imperialism

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, countries were engaged in a widespread scramble to expand their colonies around the world. This aggressive economic and political push was known as the Age of Imperialism. For example, the French, Belgians, Dutch and British had moved into the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Japan had assumed power over the Korean peninsula, and the United States was exerting control over Latin America and the Asian Pacific. In retrospect, it looked just like a mad dash to see which nation could acquire the most territorial possessions.

One country that all empire-building powers wanted to control was China. During the late 19th century, the Chinese government was in a fragile state, and different countries had designated spheres of influence inside of China. Spheres of influence are areas of economic and political control.

Among the Europeans, Japanese and Americans, there was intense competition to exert control over China - countries that were literally carving the nation into pieces. Great Britain, for example, controlled the city of Hong Kong. It was kind of like the classic childhood game, King of the Hill, in which the players compete to see who can remain atop some 'hill' the longest. During the Age of Imperialism, it seemed as if nearly every country was competing to be top dog in China.

Hay's Open Door Policy

In 1899, John Hay, the Secretary of State under President McKinley, proposed an Open Door Policy towards China for all countries. In what would later be called the 'Open Door Note,' he wrote to each country. The 'Open Door Note' was a message arguing for Hay's Open Door Policy. Under this policy, no country would gain dominance in China, and economic trade would be free and open to all parties. The Chinese government would be free to regulate trade and create tariffs without giving any special advantage to any one government.

A Pseudo-Treaty

In practice, the Open Door Policy resembled a group of friends standing around deciding whether or not to ride a roller coaster. In making the decision, many in the group end up saying something like, 'Well, I'll go if you go.' At the same time, nobody budges. This same type of behavior occurred when Hay rolled out his Open Door Policy. In response to Hay, all of the European countries involved essentially said, 'Well, we'll do it if everyone else does it.' However, not a single country would commit to it in writing.

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