This year, the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai (henceforth AmCham) is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Though not in continuous operation since 1915 — there was a forty-year interregnum between the late 1940s and 1980s — AmCham’s long history in Shanghai is emblematic of the city’s historical importance as a place of trade and commerce.
As stated on its website, AmCham’s mission is “to support the success of our members by promoting a healthy business environment in China, strengthening U.S.-China commercial ties and providing high-quality business information and resources.” As a non-profit, non-partisan business organization, AmCham sits in a unique position to influence Chinese policy, since it is able to distance itself from the political agenda of U.S. policymakers and focus on substantive issues affecting American businesses and the Chinese economy.
I know what everyone’s thinking: how exactly does AmCham accomplish its mission, and what is the current business atmosphere in Shanghai? I’ll answer the second question, first.
In recent years, there has been a shift in most American companies’ interests in China. Twenty-five years ago, many companies were interested in entering China to drive down manufacturing costs, mainly through the country’s large and inexpensive labor force. As incomes have risen and China’s larger cities have come to rival those in developed countries, the focus has shifted. Now, instead of trying to produce products and services for Americans by Chinese labor, many large firms are seeking to produce products and services specifically for the new and ever-growing consumer class in China. This, of course, has large implications for U.S. firms.
To help American companies adapt to an ever-changing business landscape, AmCham conducts surveys to provide information to organizations looking to enter the Chinese market and identify areas of concern for which they need to try to influence policy. Interestingly, AmCham’s position as a non-governmental organization actually helps it access Chinese government officials and achieve its bottomline, which is unique given the struggles faced by many of the NGOs that we visited during our time in China.