The Open Door policy originated in the treaty port system that emerged in China during the 1840s. For centuries, China had resisted the efforts of Western traders to penetrate the country, restricting their activities to the port of Canton (Guangzhou) and subjecting them to severe punishment for violation of Chinese law. Following Britain's sweeping military victory over China in the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842, however, the Qing dynasty had no choice but to grant major concessions. The British government forced China to open four new ports to foreign trade: Amoy (Xiamen), Foochow (Fuzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), and Shanghai. British negotiators also insisted upon two privileges that would become hallmarks of Western imperialism in China. First, they demanded extraterritoriality, the right to subject British offenders to British rather than Chinese law. Second, they demanded most-favored-nation status, meaning that Britain would automatically benefit from concessions that China granted to any other country. In fact, as the historian Warren I. Cohen has observed, this demand for equal opportunity meshed well with Chinese calculations at the time. The imperial government, hoping to garner the goodwill of other Western powers to resist further British pressure, declared that all nations would have equal privileges in the treaty ports. "Now that the English barbarians have been allowed to trade," declared the Daoguang emperor, "whatever other countries there are, the United States and others, should naturally be permitted to trade without discrimination." In this way the United States, without firing a shot, came to enjoy the benefits that Britain had extracted through military intervention.
The treaty system became more elaborate in the following years as Qing authority continued to deteriorate amid civil wars and new military humiliations by Britain and France. What had been a trickle of Chinese concessions to the imperial powers grew into a torrent with the Treaties of Tientsin in 1858. Under those agreements China opened eleven new ports and for the first time permitted foreigners to navigate the Yangtze River and to travel throughout China's interior. The agreements also dictated a low tariff on foreign goods entering China, essentially robbing the Chinese government of the right to set its own trade policy. As in the 1840s, Americans were well placed to benefit from these concessions. The United States maintained a minimal diplomatic staff in China and had no military presence whatsoever. Yet under most-favored-nation provisions reaffirmed in the new treaties, American merchants received all of the advantages extracted by Britain and France. Historians have labeled Americans "hitchhiking" imperialists or, in a different formulation, "jackals" fattening up thanks to the British lion and other European predators.
The scavenger's role served American merchants well for half a century. In relative terms, U.S. exports to China remained tiny—just 0.5 percent of all U.S. exports as late as 1895. But American merchants managed to gain a significant toehold in a period when the U.S. government, with its commitment to laissez-faire economic principles, denied them the kind of backing their European rivals received from elaborate diplomatic and military establishments. By the early 1850s Americans operated about twenty-five of the two hundred Western firms doing business in China, and American ships carried one-third of all Western trade with the country. American shipping boomed, especially in Shanghai, the busiest treaty port, where U.S. bottoms carried about one-half of all Western trade. Over time, American merchants obtained important shares of the Chinese market for textiles, oil, metals, and tobacco, all by exploiting what the Europeans made possible.
Two developments in the 1890s—one in the United States, the other in the Far East—drove Washington to seek far more formal assurances of American trading rights. In the United States, the staggering economic collapse of 1893 led to a surge of interest in China as a market for American goods. The depression bankrupted more than fifteen thousand businesses, sent commodity prices plummeting to new lows, and fed unemployment rates as high as 25 percent in many American cities. Most alarming to the political and economic elite, the crisis touched off a wave of strikes and protests that shook the foundations of the freewheeling Gilded Age economy. Industrialists, politicians, and intellectuals naturally sought to explain the cause of such a cataclysm, and by the mid-1890s most had their answer: overproduction. The United States, they believed, simply produced more than its population could absorb and was choking on the surplus. The closing of the Western frontier left these men with little hope of expanding the domestic market, and none of them entertained demands from organized labor to increase the purchasing power of ordinary Americans. The only solution seemed to lie in exporting more to new markets abroad. "Our manufacturers have outgrown or are outgrowing the home market," the National Association of Manufacturers proclaimed in a characteristic claim of the day. "Expansion of our foreign trade," it added, was the "only promise of relief."
Few potential markets appealed as strongly as China. Since the eighteenth century Americans had commonly imagined China as a vast market peopled by millions of consumers eager for American goods. Along with India, China represented "an extensive field for the enterprise of our merchants and mariners," Alexander Hamilton wrote as far back as 1791 in his Report on Manufactures, proclaiming the distant Asian lands "an additional outlet for the commodities of the country." Following the events of 1893, the hyperbole soared to new heights amid a general outpouring of enthusiasm for an expansionist foreign policy. "In China there are 400 millions of people, more than five times as many as exist in the United States," marveled one business journal. "The wants of those 400 million people are increasing every year. What a market!" Other currents of the time reinforced purely commercial motives for intensified American interest in China. Social Darwinists stressed that China was an ideal stage on which the United States could demonstrate its competitive vigor. "Our geographical position, our wealth, and our energy pre-eminently fit us to enter upon the development of eastern Asia and to reduce it to part of our economic system," wrote the economic theorist Brooks Adams. Widespread fretting about national stagnation following the end of continental expansion also encouraged Americans to view China as a vast new frontier to absorb American energies. "What was once the old Far East," asserted one cotton seller, "is now our new Far West." Missionaries and social reformers, meanwhile, embraced American traders as potentially powerful allies in their efforts to penetrate China and convert its people—"a vast inert mass of humanity," in Secretary of State Walter Gresham's characteristic phrase—to American ways.
The second event that altered American thinking about China was the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Tension between China and Japan had mounted for several years amid obvious Japanese designs on Korea, which maintained an ambiguous tributary relationship with the Qing court. A political crisis in Korea sparked war in 1894. Within six months Japan dealt the crumbling Qing dynasty yet another humiliating defeat, destroying the Chinese military on land and at sea. The lopsided settlement awarded Japan a sphere of influence in Korea and outright possession of Taiwan and the Pescadores, major gains for a rapidly industrializing power that, like the United States, sought new markets and influence abroad. At first many Americans sympathized with Japanese demands, hoping that a badly defeated China would open more treaty ports and seek Western goods and expertise in a desperate attempt at modernization. Before long, however, Americans came to see the Japanese victory in a much different light. By further weakening Chinese authority, the Japanese victory, far from creating new opportunity, set off an intense three-year period of great-power jockeying that threatened to partition China and close off American opportunities once and for all.
With a newly wounded China floundering as never before, the smell of blood was in the water. The sharks—imperial powers hoping to take a bite of Chinese territory—gathered quickly. Russia made the first in a complicated series of moves. The Sino-Japanese War had exposed Japanese designs on Manchuria, where the Russian government also harbored long-standing economic and political ambitions. Playing skillfully on Chinese vulnerabilities, Moscow extracted extensive concessions in a treaty signed in May 1896. In return for a Russian guarantee to aid China against Japanese or other foreign aggression, the Qing rulers granted Russia permission to extend its transcontinental railway through northern Manchuria. Furthermore, China awarded Russia political authority along the rail line, free right of public domain, and a tariff reduction on goods entering China along the railroad. Jealous of Russia's gains, Germany made a far more dramatic move in 1897, seizing the port of Tsingtao (Qingdao) on Kiao-chow (Jiaozhou) Bay and demanding exclusive railroad-building and mining rights in Shandong province. China had little choice but to accede, spurring further exactions. Russia moved again, forcing China to concede a leasehold over Port Arthur (Lüshun) and its hinterland on the Liaodong Peninsula in early 1898. In southern China, meanwhile, France extracted a lease for Kwangchow (Guangzhou) Bay on the Leizhou Peninsula.
This feeding frenzy confronted the United States with an ominous situation. With American leaders increasingly convinced of China's importance to the American economy, the country seemed in serious jeopardy of being entirely consumed by the imperial powers. To be sure, few of the concessions granted to Japan, Russia, Germany, or France immediately infringed upon American commercial privileges; for the moment, at least, the most-favored-nation principle remained intact. But the situation was agonizingly unsettled, and heightened competition for privileges raised the prospect that the imperial powers would soon transform relatively porous spheres of influence into exclusive possessions. Intense concession-hunting also raised the specter of a great-power war in the Far East, another scenario that boded nothing but ill for U.S. interests. American merchants worried especially that imperial rivalries were concentrated in northern China and Manchuria, regions that absorbed a high percentage of U.S. exports to China. With key ports under their control, Germany or Russia could easily impose new tariffs and railroad rates that would discriminate against American goods. But it was not the threat to any particular port or railroad that alarmed Americans so much as the apparent challenge to the whole principle of equal opportunity enshrined in the treaty port system. American industrialists, after all, wished to retain access to all of China on a permanent basis. If this principle collapsed, the United States, with no sphere of its own and no capacity for obtaining one, would be in a dire position.