By Christopher Bodeen
The Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Gary Locke has been praised for his down-to-earth manner since becoming the first Chinese American ambassador to Beijing. He’s also been denounced as a showboater, a neocolonialist tool, and a traitor to the Chinese race.
China’s bipolar reactions to Locke since his appointment last month are partly due to an unease among Chinese authorities — accustomed to lavish official trappings and distance from ordinary folk — toward a man who gets his own coffee and carries his own luggage. They also display often contradictory sentiments about race, nationalism, and what it means to be a person of Chinese ancestry.
With its huge population and ancient culture, China has sent millions of migrants to other parts of Asia and the world. They are referred to as “overseas Chinese,” despite adopting other nationalities and are still considered by most mainlanders to be part of the larger Chinese nation.
China’s rulers have exploited such ties and sought to equate Chinese identity with loyalty to the Communist Party, aided by the country’s rapid growth over three decades of economic reform.
The American ambassador, who has not shied away from criticizing China’s policies, is challenging the notion of an innate loyalty among ethnic Chinese, said Xiong Zhiyong, a U.S. relations expert at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
“Chinese people used to think that people that have ancestral roots in China would behave in a way that would always please China,” Xiong said.
Locke also is challenging China’s notions of how a high-ranking official is supposed to act, particularly poignant at a time of rising social tensions tied to soaring prices for food and housing and growing resentment of corrupt officials and the idle rich.
Locke, a former commerce secretary and governor of Washington state, made a splash even before arriving when a fellow traveler and blogger posted a picture of him, wearing a schoolboy backpack, using a coupon to buy a cup of Starbucks coffee at the Seattle airport, before flying economy class to Beijing.
Internet commentators in China remarked at how much this contrasted with the behavior of even minor Chinese officials who have attendants handle any mundane matters.
His everyman image was further burnished when he was photographed arriving at Beijing airport without a retinue or formal welcome ceremony, pushing his own luggage cart and riding in a van with his family rather than in the official ambassador’s limousine.
“Backpack makes a good impression,” ran a commentary in the official English-language China Daily newspaper, adding, “Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke,” the paper said.
For his first public address, he passed over prestigious Peking and Tsinghua universities in favor of the relatively humble Beijing Foreign Studies University. There, he appeared to win over students and faculty with a recounting of how his family had gone from an immigrant community to the governor’s mansion in three generations and made a strong case for American openness and inclusiveness.
“It’s a great honor for our school. He is very friendly, and I think his story is very inspiring,” European language student Annie Liu said.
Locke was not available for comment, but in earlier remarks has said he was “personally flabbergasted” by all the attention and that he hoped it would help convey America’s stress on diversity and openness.
It didn’t take long before Chinese official commentators took issue with the buzz around Locke.
As early as mid-August, the Communist Party’s official Guangming Daily newspaper issued a broadside telling readers to “be alert to the American neo-imperialism being brought by Luo Jiahui.” It referred to Locke by the Mandarin version of his family’s original Chinese surname, Luo.
“His overseas Chinese identity … wins him affection among ordinary folks in China, but as everyone knows, this only reveals America’s despicable desire to use Chinese against Chinese and provoke political chaos in China,” the newspaper said.
It called his humble style a politically calculated affectation and urged Chinese officials to counter it by adopting more humble stances.
Another party paper, the Global Times, faulted Chinese media for overhyping Locke’s humility and creating a “Luo Jiahui fever,” while accusing him of “far surpassing the popular opinion role that an ambassador should properly play.”
The newspaper commentary was mild compared to the rage stirred by a speech Locke delivered Sept. 19 to the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing in which he criticized China’s restrictions on market access to foreign investors.
“Luo Jiahui, you have forgotten your origins and disgraced your ancestors! Heaven will have its revenge!” read one posting on the message boards of the popular sina.com website. “Luo Jiahhui is nothing but an anti-China element with a Chinese face,” read another.
Such sentiments represent a form of prejudice in which Chinese expect more from people of their own ethnicity, with Locke being singled out for extra criticism because of his heritage, said Frank Dikotter, author of “The Discourse of Race in Modern China.”
But they also reflect the effects of 62 years of communist rule, with its rigid intolerance of opposing views, Dikotter said.
“This is a county where invective still rules. In the absence of a civil society, there still is a strong tradition of not so much attacking the logical flaws of your opponent, but attacking his personality or his very person,” he said. (end)