Why China Seems so Fascinated by US Ambassador Gary Locke

Ever since he bought his own coffee in the airport en route to his new posting in Beijing, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke has been the topic of much discussion among netizens and others in China. The Christian Science Monitor reports on the positive praise he’s been getting from some corners:

This Monday, “China Economic Weekly,” published by the ruling Communist Party, took its turn running a star-struck story about Mr. Locke’s common touch. It was only the latest in a spate of positive press reports and Internet comments since Washington’s man in Beijing took up his post last month.

This time, the reporter recounted how Locke and his family waited in line for an hour, just like any ordinary person, for a seat on the cable car carrying tourists down from the Great Wall.

The Chinese public’s fascination with this sort of thing, says social commentator Yao Bo, derives from the fact that “the ambassador looks Chinese, but his behavior is completely un-Chinese.”

Yet not everyone in China is starstruck. Some official media outlets have been less generous in their descriptions of Locke and his motives in China. From an editorial in the Global Times:

The attention Gary Locke has received as the new US ambassador to China is far more than his role deserves. Besides his attitude toward many aspects of the bilateral relationship, his personal life has aroused fierce discussion among the Chinese public. He flew economy class, carries a backpack and buys coffee with discount vouchers. His normal image has won him praise from some Chinese media.

It is reminiscent of the discussion over US Vice President Joe Biden dining in a cheap restaurant in Beijing. Some Chinese media’s expectations of their officials shine through in these comments.

It would not be bad if these actions were covered by the media, whilst keeping a level head. It loses value when Locke’s every move is packaged by the media as being part of the class of US officials. Some journalists like to romanticize what they see out of a lack of knowledge and may hold Locke up as a mirror for Chinese officials.

Locke is not supposed to have a large number of guards as an ambassador to China. And it costs much more in security for Biden to eat a bowl of noodles in a street restaurant than for him to dine at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse.

No Chinese ambassadors to other countries would have many attendants and, globally speaking, all visitors of Biden’s level may enjoy the opportunity to enter smaller restaurants.

It is bizarre and twisted to regard these acts as evidence of cleanness in US politics.

And another editorial in Guangming Daily, in Chinese, was even harsher, as the Wall Street Journal blog reports:

“Once we clearly understand the way this world is structured, we won’t be seduced by Gary Locke’s façade,” the Communist Party newspaper Guangming Daily said in an editorial last Friday titled “A Warning on the American Neo-Colonialism Gary Locke Brings” about the first Chinese-American to be named the U.S. envoy to China (in Chinese). “His Chinese-American identity means that he’s capable of attracting the attention and public support of Chinese people around the world, capable of developing an affinity with regular people in China. Who’s to say that isn’t the intention of the U.S., to use a Chinese to control the Chinese and incite political chaos in China?”

The response so far among Chinese Internet users: Bring it on.

“To be honest, I’m looking forward to being colonized,” a user of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging service writing under the name Yan Lu’antong commented Tuesday. “We welcome this kind of ‘neo-colonialism’ with open arms!!!” added another user, Liu Xiaodong.

September 22, 2011 12:51 PM
Posted By: