ZhaoHui Tang, via Associated Press
Gary Locke, the new U.S. ambassador to China, buying coffee and carrying a backpack at a Starbucks cafe in the Seattle airport last week while en route to China with his family.
Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., with his granddaughter, Naomi, arrived in Beijing on Wednesday.
China Responds Strongly To Photograph of Envoy
A photograph taken of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his daughter in the Seattle airport, has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The photo has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and expense accounts.
A humble official with no entourage sets Beijing aflutter.
By EDWARD WONG
BEIJING — The word on the street these days, whether in Washington or Beijing, is that the United States is on the decline and China is on the ascent. But it has taken nothing more than a cup of coffee and a backpack to show that American officials can still evoke awe, respect and envy among Chinese, even if unwittingly.
A photograph taken last Friday of Gary F. Locke, the new United States ambassador to China, buying coffee with his 6-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport has gone viral on the Chinese Internet. The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft and bribery and lavish expense accounts.
It was an unintended charm offensive, but this humble image of American officialdom has no doubt helped pave the way for Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who landed in China on Wednesday night for three days of meetings with Chinese leaders.
Mr. Locke and his family were waiting to fly to Beijing when a Chinese-American businessman shot the photograph and posted it on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site. It has been reposted over 40,000 times and has generated thousands of comments. State news organizations have weighed in with favorable articles about Mr. Locke, a former governor of Washington State and President Obama’s first Commerce secretary, who on Tuesday presented his credentials to President Hu Jintao of China to start his posting.
The first impression from the Starbucks episode has been bolstered by another photograph that shows Mr. Locke, his wife, Mona, and their three children carrying their own luggage after landing at Beijing Capital International Airport. Chinese who saw them then spread the word that the family had gotten into an anonymous minivan because a formal sedan that had been sent to pick them up was too small.
“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article Wednesday.
Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Chinese elite politics, said in an e-mail: “Ambassador Locke’s photo contrasts sharply with the image of the Chinese officials who often live in a secret, insulated, very privileged fashion. This may explain why some Chinese leaders tend to be out of touch with the real life of the ordinary Chinese people — members of the urban middle class, not to mention the farmers and migrant workers.”
The photographs of Mr. Locke have landed in a summer when the Chinese are asking profound questions about whether their officials are still committed to that famous Maoist mantra “Serve the people.” The issue was brought into sharp relief in late July by the high-speed rail crash in the eastern city of Wenzhou that killed 40 people and injured 191. Many blamed the government, and specifically the Railway Ministry, for incompetence and callousness, and the public pressure has led to the dismissals of officials.
In October 2010, anger erupted in China over an episode in which a 22-year-old drunken driver, trying to avoid arrest for killing one woman in an accident and injuring another, invoked the name of his father, a senior police official: “Go ahead, sue me if you dare. My father is Li Gang!” That phase became a euphemism for official arrogance and impunity.
Chinese fed up with self-indulgent behavior by officials often post photographs on the Internet of bureaucrats being chauffeured around in black Audis, buying Louis Vuitton handbags for wives or mistresses and playing golf or strolling on beaches.
The uproar over the photograph of Mr. Locke was not the first time the Chinese had been captivated by the sight of a senior American official performing seemingly humble tasks. In November 2009, President Obama, on his first trip to China, inadvertently set off a firestorm of commentary when he stepped out of an airplane in Shanghai holding a black umbrella during a rain shower. Chinese officials often have aides hold umbrellas above their heads.
The commentary on Mr. Locke written by Mr. Chen, the China Daily editor, was published under the headline “Backpack Makes a Good Impression.” Mr. Chen wrote: “How could someone who holds the rank of ambassador to a big country not have someone carry his luggage, and not use a chauffeured limousine? In China even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.”
He concluded: “Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke.”
The businessman who took Mr. Locke’s photograph, Tang Zhaohui, said in a post on his microblog that even Mr. Locke’s exchange with the Starbucks barista reflected humility. Mr. Locke tried using a discount coupon to pay, Mr. Tang said, but the barista would not honor it for some reason. Without complaining, Mr. Locke paid with a credit card.
To many Chinese, what has been most noteworthy about Mr. Locke, 61, barring his coffee-buying habits, is that he is the first Chinese-American ambassador here. His ancestral home is in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, from which vast numbers of people have emigrated to the United States. (Full disclosure: Mr. Locke and this reporter, whose ancestral home is also in Taishan, are cousins, though have yet to meet.)
On Sunday, as Mr. Locke stood with his family at a news conference outside his home in Beijing, he made a nod to his ties to China in a short speech. “I am both humbled and honored to stand here before you as a child of Chinese immigrants representing America, the land of my birth, and the American values my family holds dear,” he said.
Mr. Locke’s first significant duty here is to help shepherd Mr. Biden through meetings, formal dinners and staged photo events. Mr. Biden’s tour, his first as vice president, will take him through Beijing and the western city of Chengdu. He will spend time with China’s presumed next leader, Xi Jinping, and discuss a variety of issues, including economic policy and the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
But first, Mr. Biden did his part to show he was a man of the people. Instead of going straight to the St. Regis Beijing Hotel from the airport, Mr. Biden and his entourage made an unannounced drive through the cold rain to the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium to watch a basketball match between the Georgetown Hoyas and a team from Shanxi Province. Mr. Biden took a seat in the front row behind the visitors’ bench, to the applause of dozens of Georgetown fans. Mr. Biden told reporters that he had received many requests from the Georgetown community to attend. He and Mr. Locke sat beside each other.