As the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai prepares to celebrate 100 years in China as of June 2015, we take a look back to highlight some American products, people and companies that changed daily life in China, bridged cultural gaps, and paved the way for decades of American-Chinese trade.
The “Washington DC Doorknock” has been an important element of AmCham Shanghai’s work for many years and a feature well known to many of our members. But how many people realize that the doorknock tradition started almost one hundred years ago with a trip to Washington by a noted Shanghai-based American journalist? And the principal topic of that first doorknock – seeking help from Congress to create a level playing field for American companies in China! Sound familiar? In this week’s look at AmCham Shanghai’s history, we share the story of an influential American journalist and our first Washington DC Doorknock.
John Benjamin Powell was one of the most influential American journalists in China a century ago. He came to Shanghai in 1917 to cofound a new English language weekly – Millard’s Review of the Far East – that promised “honest direct reporting from Shanghai covering news of the Far East and relations with the United States.” The inaugural issue included a cover story about Frank J. Raven, a celebrated financial and real estate mogul in Shanghai, who faced legal challenges from the U.S. Court for China in his effort to incorporate the American-Oriental Banking Corporation.
In the autumn of 1920, Powell was planning a trip to the United States to sell advertisement space for his weekly. He was approached by the then chairman of AmCham Shanghai, John Harold Dollar, to include a visit to Washington in order to promote a China Trade Act on the chamber’s behalf. Powell thought it would be a fairly straightforward assignment and accepted the task. The focus of the proposed legislation was to provide special tax incentives to U.S. firms engaged in trade with China. With this, the Chamber’s first doorknock was born.
In his memoir, Powell wrote: “Since I had had no experience whatever as a lobbyist, I consulted some of my newspaper friends about what to do to get a bill through Congress. This usually drew a laugh, particularly at the Press Club. Some of the veterans explained to me that Washington was crowded with people who had come to the Capitol “to get a bill through Congress” in the expectation that it would take a few weeks. They had stayed on and on, and in many cases the lobbying job became their sole source of support. I soon found out that my newness was an advantage, because I did not fall into the routine of the professionals. Also I worked like the very dickens interviewing Congressmen and others who could help. ”
In early 1922, after an effort that lasted two years, Powell finally succeeded. The China Trade Act provided special tax breaks for American concerns doing business in the Far East and put American firms on a more equal basis with companies from European nations, many of which already enjoyed tax breaks from their governments.
Powell’s relationship with the Chamber ended on a sour note following an attack on the foreign community in Nanjing in 1927, allegedly by Communist forces. Many in the Chamber wanted the U.S. government to intervene. Powell actively opposed and used his publication to press his point of view. As a result, the Chamber voted in 1927 to expel Powell, although there were questions about the legality of the vote.
Powell was not only a successful lobbyist, but he was also a celebrated journalist. Early on, Powell realized the importance of building ties with Shanghai’s English-speaking Chinese community. This may have been prompted by concern that the foreign community was too small to sustain his new weekly. Whatever the reason, Powell energetically promoted Millard’s Review to what in fact was the largest English-reading constituency in Shanghai, namely intellectuals, and graduates and students of missionary and municipal schools. He even taught a course in journalism at one of the colleges. Powell credited himself as the first foreign editor in China to discover the young English-reading Chinese subscriber.
By 1922, Powell had become the sole owner of the Millard Review, which he renamed the China Weekly Review. Always the hard-working journalist, from 1922 to 1941, he traveled extensively in China, Japan and the Soviet Union covering the unrest, revolutions and wars which plagued the region during those decades. In addition to the China Weekly Review, Powell’s articles were published by various newspapers, the China Press, Chicago Tribune, Manchester Guardian and Daily Herald.
Powell held a strong sympathy for China and deeply resented Japan’s aggression. Following the U.S. entry into World War II, Japanese troops accused him of espionage and arrested him on December 8, 1941. He was starved and tortured for the next four months. When released shortly thereafter as part of a prisoner exchange, he weighed just 75 pounds and suffered from gangrene in both feet, the result of malnutrition, exposure, and poor circulation in his feet and legs caused by being forced sit on his feet “Japanese fashion” for long periods at a time. Powell returned to the United States in 1942 and participated in the war effort by denouncing the Japanese in print and in personal appearances. He became a widely known symbol of Japanese brutality. Never fully recovered from his ordeal, he passed away in 1947.