Obama to nominate Gary Locke as China ambassador

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will be the first 'ABC' – American-born Chinese – to serve in the post. Will that influence China's expectations?

Jason Lee/Reuters
US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke speaks during an event in Tianjin on May 22, 2010. President Barack Obama is expected to nominate Mr. Locke as next ambassador to China, two US officials said on Monday. Locke would be the first American-born Chinese to serve in this post.

News that President Obama will today nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next US ambassador to China raises a curious question of diplomacy.

Is it more efficacious to have an ambassador who looks Chinese, like Mr. Locke, or one who speaks Chinese, like the current incumbent Jon Huntsman, who learned the language as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan?

Locke, descended on his father’s side from a Chinese immigrant grandpa, can converse in Taishan, a local language spoken in parts of southern China, but it's not Mandarin, which is the language the country is ruled in.

Nor, let it be swiftly said, are Locke’s looks by any means the only thing he has going for him in the Beijing ambassadorial stakes. As a lawyer he has immersed himself in China business, and as governor of the state of Washington he was a regular visitor to Beijing, boosting the state’s exports. He is well connected in this town, and well known.

But there is an undeniable tendency among Chinese of all walks of life, officials or not, to expect ABCs (that’s “American-born Chinese) to have enough of a soft spot for “the old country” that they will give China a break. “You’re one of us really,” the thinking seems to go. “If we don’t always do things the foreign way” (be that human rights or trade protectionism) “you’ll be sympathetic to us.”

If Chinese officials approach Locke in that fashion, should his nomination be approved, they will likely be in for a nasty shock. As Commerce secretary, Locke has been brisk in his defense of American interests in its trade with China.

He has a Chinese cultural card up his sleeve, though. Locke’s (Mandarin) Chinese family name is Luo. He is said – perhaps apocryphally – to be a great-great-great (36 times) grandson of one of the four towering poets of the golden age of Chinese poetry, Luo Binwang, who lived in the 7th century but whose “Ode to a Goose” is still learned by every Chinese schoolchild.

Goose, goose, goose,

sing to the sky with bended neck,

white feather floating in emerald water,

red palms driving in the clear waves.

Locke might want to learn to recite that in Mandarin before he gets here, to earn some brownie points, if he doesn’t know it already.

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