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William Henry Donald (1875–1946)

by Winston G. Lewis

This article was published:

William Henry Donald (1875-1946), journalist, foreign correspondent and adviser, was born on 22 June 1875 at Lithgow, New South Wales, second surviving son of George McGarvie Donald (1846-1930), a native-born mason, and his English wife Mary Ann (Marion), née Wiles. George became a building contractor, was first mayor of Lithgow in 1889 and in 1891-94 represented Hartley in the Legislative Assembly as a free trader. William was educated at Lithgow Public School and Cooerwull Academy, Bowenfels. Prevented from following his father's trade by an injury, he became a printer and a journalist. He worked on the Bathurst National Advocate, the Sydney Daily Telegraph and the Melbourne Argus.

In 1903 Donald accepted a position with Hong Kong China Mail. On 17 September 1904 at the Wesleyan Methodist Church, Wanchai, Hong Kong, he married Mary Wall (d.1972), English-born daughter of a Sydney contractor. He became managing director of the China Mail but in 1908 resigned, having been appointed South China representative of the New York Herald in 1905; he covered the 1911 revolution, during which he 'advised' the short-lived government of Sun Yat-sen in its negotiations with foreign powers. He remained in Hong Kong until 1911 when he moved to Shanghai and in 1913 to Peking.

From 1912 he edited the Far Eastern Review, but resigned in 1920 because of a clash with its owner George Bronson Rea over Japan's role in China. Although initially an admirer of Japan—in 1908 he had received a minor Japanese decoration for his coverage of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)—by 1915 he had become an extremely vocal critic of Japanese imperialism.

Donald's next position as director of the Bureau of Economic Information in Peking was a continuation of his work with the Far Eastern Review. While living in Peking he pursued active journalistic work, often deputizing for David Fraser, the London Times correspondent, and serving as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. In 1928, as a result of financial pressure exerted on the bureau by the newly established Nationalist government, he resigned and went north to Manchuria where he was appointed adviser to the 'Young Marshal', Chang Hsueh-liang; this move began the most important and most baffling chapter of Donald's career.

There seems little doubt that he displayed a paternal interest in Chang Hsueh-liang, and played a key role in his rehabilitation after defeats in Manchuria and Jehol at the hands of Japan (1931-32). In 1933 he persuaded Chang to undergo a cure for opium addiction and that year accompanied him on a European tour. Upon their return to China, Donald remained with Chang until 1935, when he gravitated towards the Generalissimo and Madam Chiang Kai-shek.

The extent of Donald's influence in 1935-40 is very difficult to fathom—some argue that he was no more than a glorified public relations officer, others that he played a significant role in policy formulation. But there can be no doubt that his mediation during the Sian coup d'état in December 1936, when Chang Hsueh-liang's disaffected subordinates detained Chiang Kai-shek, represented the high point of his career in China.

When Donald left Chungking in May 1940, after a disagreement with Chiang Kai-shek over Chinese policy towards Germany, the British minister at the time described him as a 'garrulous old man'. However it was at Madam Chiang's request that he was returning to China after touring the Pacific in 1940-41, when he was captured in Manila in January 1942. Throughout his captivity, first in the University of Santo Tomas Camp then in Los Banos, he managed to conceal his identity.

Liberated in February 1945, Donald chose repatriation to the United States of America, but failing to regain his health, he went to Tahiti to recuperate. Falling ill there, he was flown to Honolulu, thence Shanghai, where he died on 9 November 1946. He was survived by his wife, from whom he had separated about 1920, and by his daughter, Muriel Mary, born at Hong Kong on 22 July 1909 who died on 21 April 1973 in California, where they were living.

Select Bibliography

  • E. A. Selle, Donald of China (Syd, 1948)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 30 June 1891
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 July 1930
  • Harold K. Hochschild papers (New York)
  • N. T. Johnson papers (Library of Congress)
  • J. M. McHugh papers (Cornell University, New York)
  • G. E. Morrison papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • FO 371 800 (National Archives of the United Kingdom).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Winston G. Lewis, 'Donald, William Henry (1875–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1875
Lithgow, New South Wales, Australia


9 November, 1946 (aged 71)
Shanghai, China

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