China still doesn’t know what to make of Gary Locke.
The former Washington Governor-turned-US Ambassador has raised eyebrows in the PRC lately due to his high-profile involvement in the ongoing saga of escaped human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
Locke put himself directly and vigorously into the fray by escorting the blind human rights activist from the US Embassy in Beijing where he had sought refuge from PRC security forces, to the hospital where Chen continues to recuperate from injuries sustained in his thrilling escape from house arrest. It was a bout of decisiveness on Locke’s part that was uncharacteristic of a politician from Washington State.
Put plainly, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda apparatus doesn’t know what the heck to do with Locke.
Locke’s involvement in the Chen affair has complicated the Ambassador’s already confusing symbolic relationship with the Chinese public and the PRC’s state-dominated media.
The Ambassador is a sympathetic figure to many members of the Chinese public due to his Chinese ancestry and bootstraps narrative. He represents many of the Chinese public’s aspirations and ambitions; like many PRC citizens, Locke doesn’t speak the official, “modernized” dialect of Chinese used in government business very well—he speaks a limited amount of the local dialect that he learned from his parents as a child in Seattle’s Yesler Terrace public housing development.
Yet, despite his humble origins, Locke has reached the loftiest ranks of high-officialdom (and gets props for marrying way out of his league).
It’s a narrative that’s rare in China, where political power is concentrated in the hands of the political class and their children (Hu Jintao, the outgoing President of China, fits in this category). These party Fauntleroys are known as “princelings” (which is definitely an honorific you can find in Mao’s Red Book). CCP cadres are notorious for exploiting every petty privilege afforded to them by their rank and status.
Locke’s popularity in China started back in August when he was was photographed carrying his own bags and buying his own coffee at Sea-Tac airport while he waited for the flight that would carry him and his family to his new post.
In China, even the lowliest local official flaunts his power and privilege by retaining a large entourage—bodyguards, drivers, assistants and the like. Locke’s unpretentious Northwest manner endeared him to the Chinese public as soon as he assumed his position (though that was before he exhibited classic Seattle passive-aggression by Tweeting about air pollution using a monitor on top of the US Embassy in Beijing. For real).
But an endemic part of Locke’s position as ambassador is to proudly and loudly identify as an American. As the official representative of the US government in China, he often advocates for US actions that could be perceived as an assault on Chinese interests and prerogatives – actions like escorting a fugitive political prisoner to safekeeping.
Predictably, the CCP propaganda apparatus has attempted to portray the Chen incident as yet another foreign humiliation visited on a proud China. As the CCP grumbled in an editorial that ran in the Chinese-language Beijing Daily that gained extra bite by running on May 4, a symbolic day in Chinese nationalism:
“The American Embassy in China and the new U.S ambassador to China, Gary Locke, have used various means that are incommensurate with their roles and responsibilities — their “little tricks” have continued unabated. …If Gary Locke wants to serve as a good ambassador then he must be more earnest and serious, not employing these under-the-table deals, these ugly little affairs that only bring disgrace to himself. …The United State must learn to respect China’s core interests. It must learn to treat with China on the basis of equality,” (translation courtesy of the Chinese Media Project at the University of Hong Hong).
Just as predictably, China’s social media users have reacted with disdain and criticism of the official line. “Beijing Daily says that the 1.3 billion people of China aren’t so easily deceived. I do agree with that sentence,” wrote one wag on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. “The Global Times and Beijing Daily aren’t media but are clubs wielded by the Party, tools of the emperor, the watchdogs of certain groups,” harrumphed another.
It seems that the crux of public opinion is still cautiously in favor of Locke, if only because he thumbed his nose at the CCP’s propagandists.
That populist perception might be the defining quality of Locke’s tenure as ambassador. By virtue of Locke’s background, he was automatically going to be a more visible figure than his predecessor, the straight-laced Jon Huntsman. Where Huntsman largely stayed out of the limelight (as he went on to do in his failed bid as ‘the other Mormon presidential candidate’), Locke has sought it, becoming the friendly face of US policy in China.
If that was President Obama’s goal in choosing Locke, he chose brilliantly – Locke, especially when compared to wooden CCP high officials, embodies the “aw shucks, just folks” quality of Washington State politics more than anybody.
But if the goal was to find an ambassador who can discreetly and tactfully conduct the business of the United States, the President might have got more than he bargained for with our hometown hero.
This post was produced with funding from City Club.
Peter Johnson is a writer based in Seattle. In between scribbling stories about politics, music and culture on the backs of napkins, he plays bass, drums and cello with as many bands as can put up with him.