Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Anniversary of the Open-Door Policy

Today is the 106th anniversary of John Hay's memorandum suggesting the implementation of an 'Open Door' policy for China in 1899. The memorandum was addressed to the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, in light of that country's move to explicitly obtain for itself a 'sphere of influence' within China, and the memo suggested that regardless of the various spheres of influence of European imperialist powers, the right of merchants of all nations to trade on a 'most favored nation' basis would not be affected anywhere in China. The full text of the memorandum is available here.

The memorandum also held that all customs duties, regardless of any 'sphere of influence', would accrue to the Chinese government. It sounded all very noble and was enshrined in American history as a period of great American idealism being exerted on the European imperialist powers. However, the Chinese of that and every succeeding era rightly saw it as a set of rules of the road for the maximum extraction of economic benefit from China by Western powers while still keeping the cadaver of the Chinese body politic only just faintly alive. America had just become an Asian imperial power after the Spanish-American War of 1898 that had given it the Philippines, but interest in another war domestically was low. Meanwhile, the European powers were moving in for the kill on the 'sick man' of Asia, the Chinese throne dominated by the power-hungry and incompetent Empress Dowager of China. America felt it had to act.

Shortly after Hay's initial efforts, the Boxers of Shandong moved in on Beijing, killing every Westerner in their path, mostly missionaries and their families. As is widely known, the Boxers came to believe that bullets could not harm them, and that if killed, their spirits would be able to aid the Boxer army. Despite the Empress Dowager's feigned efforts to help the foreigners, she had secretly recruited them to her side; she saw these nativist Chinese, impoverished by the famine that had struck Shandong, as the best way to rid her country of foreign influence and deflect the mounting unrest over foreign Qing (Manchu) rule. After a protracted siege, the Western countries united to lift the siege at Peking; shortly thereafter, the United States was able to harry all of the other foreign ministers into agreeing to the 'Open Door' policy.

The dying Qing empire was thereby kept on life support by this agreement for another 11 years, instead of being subjected to partition. But that sovereignty came at a great economic price to the Chinese nation, and to national pride. In a sense, it was American foreign policy at its finest - high-minded idealism married to tangible economic benefit to American interests. This dualism of American idealism and realpolitik has, as we well know manifested itself numerous times throughout the intervening century. Americans should realise (or should I say realize?) for that reason that far from being 'the beacon on the hill', it is regarded as a purveyor of hypocrisy by many Chinese citizens, most of whom have not been party to more sympathetic treatments of Hay's objectives in his 'Open Door' policy.

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