Why China seems so fascinated by US Ambassador Gary Locke

Carry his own luggage and wait in line at the Great Wall? Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, has won the public's heart with humble acts that are rarely seen among Chinese officials.

China Daily/Reuters
US ambassador to China Gary Locke delivers a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in the People's Republic of China and members of United States-China Business Council, in front of the national flags of US and China, in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Another week, another public round of warm applause for America’s new ambassador to China, Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the job.

China seems to be fascinated by him.

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.”

In this country, nobody of Locke’s status would be caught dead carrying his own luggage, which the US ambassador is wont to do, or trying to pay for a Starbucks coffee with a coupon, as Locke was photographed doing at Seattle airport on his way to China last month.

A senior official behaving as humbly as a normal human being is a breath of fresh air in China, where officials are widely reviled for the lavish lifestyles many of them enjoy, often paid for by corruption. Locke has drawn a lot of friendly attention here, where Mao Zedong’s injunction that Communist Party members should “serve the people” seems to ring hollow in most people’s ears.

Since the photo of Locke at a Seattle airport Starbucks, snapped by a passing Chinese-American businessman, went viral on the Chinese Internet last month, the US ambassador has been a popular subject for commentary on microblogs.

“I found him modest, unassuming, and easy to get along with,” wrote one blogger, Sun Mingnan, who said he had met Locke during the Summer Davos meeting in the coastal city of Dalian last week. “I think a lot of people could learn from America how to be an official.”

The attention Locke has garnered is freighted with political significance, says Mr. Yao. “None of the things written about him are really about him at all,” explains Yao. “They are just painting a picture to contrast with Chinese officials; it is all meant as ironic commentary.”

The Chinese press is almost as full of stories about the misdeeds of Chinese officials and their offspring as it is of articles about the American ambassador. Last week the teenage son of an Army general was sent into a year’s detention after beating up an older couple in a road rage incident.

“When it is compared to Chinese officials’ special privileges, Locke’s behavior as a normal person has special meaning,” says Yao.

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