Great Expectations: Chinese Students in America and the Open Door, 1900-1930

Daniel Michael DuBois, University of Colorado Boulder


The famous Open Door policy is often at the center of historical study on twentieth century U.S.-Chinese relations. Codified by U.S. Secretary of State John Hay between 1899 and 1900, the Open Door policy aimed to counter growing European imperial interest in China. It called for the liberalization of foreign trade with China, while guaranteeing the preservation of China's territorial and administrative authority in perpetuity. Historians of U.S. foreign relations, however, have since questioned the benevolence behind Hay's policy. They emphasize instead a vision of American supremacy in East Asia that belied the Open Door's more lofty principles of free trade and self-determination. Thus, in addition to its exploitation of China's economy, many scholars approach the Open Door as the foundation of an imperialistic American foreign economic policy that persists to this day.

This dissertation reconsiders the standard interpretation of the Open Door by emphasizing the previously untapped writings, speeches, and political activism of a large group of Chinese nationals living in the U.S. at the turn of the twentieth century. While acknowledging that the Open Door was representative of America's imperial aspirations in East Asia, I argue that it also provided a framework for how the Chinese envisioned their country's future with America and the world. This is especially true for Chinese students in American colleges and universities. For them, the Open Door was a promise of America's friendship to China; a rubric by which they could both judge U.S. foreign policy and measure their own expectations for Sino-American relations. In their personal writings and formal publications, the students routinely invoked the Open Door as an international standard of good will and fair play - one that distinguished the U.S. from the more rapacious powers of Europe and Japan. I contend that their optimism provides a counterpoint to the argument that the Open Door was merely a tool to expand American influence in Asia. Rather, for these students, it was for a short time proof of American exceptionalism.

Over the course of almost thirty years, the students worked to build a coalition of influential and likeminded Chinese and Americans for the promotion of a mutually-beneficial relationship between the U.S. and China, based on the Open Door. Ultimately, however, their enthusiasm and optimism in America's friendship with China dissipated into cynicism and despair by 1922. Their writings and activism help explain the deterioration in Sino-American relations that emerged in the 1920s and portend the eventual antagonism between the U.S. and China after World War II. By including these transnational actors in concert with the traditional cast of diplomats, business leaders, and politicians, this dissertation also offers a fresh interpretation of the Open Door - one that emphasizes the agency and influence of those who are so often dismissed as victims or bystanders of America's ascent to empire.