Americans dreamed of building prosperity at home through trade with China. To achieve this political leaders and businessmen assumed that China needed to be stable, unified, and open to international commerce. In the late 1800s, however, China was heading toward collapse due to internal upheaval and outside pressure. Japan, Russia, Germany, France, and Great Britain each vied to build spheres of influence-specific areas of China where they enjoyed special trading privileges and political influence. American leaders were less interested in obtaining a sphere of influence than in maintaining their trading rights with all parts of China. In September 1899 Secretary of State John Hay sent notes to the major European powers asking that they allow equal trading opportunities for all nations within China. Other than Great Britain, which had supported the Open Door concept all along, European powers gave noncommittal replies. When an anti-foreign uprising known as the Boxer Movement swept through parts of northeastern China, European nations and Japan threatened to expand their spheres of influence and strengthen the barriers between them. In July 1900 Hay sent another message that emphasized the importance of respecting China's territorial integrity and permitting open trade. The replies to the U.S. note were vaguely supportive, and the United States even briefly considered seizing its own sphere along China's southeast coast. Although the Open Door notes had little immediate impact on the actions of Japan or European nations, they helped form the basis for U.S. policy toward China for the next half century and created in the American mind an image of a "special relationship" with the Middle Kingdom.
Michael H. Hunt. The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914 (New York, 1983).
Marilyn Young. The Rhetoric of Empire: American China Policy, 1895-1901 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1968)