China Ink

On a mission

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is on his way to Beijing as US ambassador to China.

A friend of China?

He’s already got a Chinese name – Hong Bopei – which is a good start, and the Chinese media is generally happy with his credentials.

The People’s Daily is pleased too, calling the appointment “good steel where it is needed most.” ChinaStakes.com also approves of Hong’s use of Mandarin (“Together we work, together we progress”) in his acceptance speech. The fact he speaks Chinese is (surprisingly) not much of an issue for the Chinese press, however.

The American media, although initially surprised by the announcement, was quick to grasp the foreign policy logic. Huntsman speaks the lingo, lived and worked in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary, and even adopted a Chinese girl as one of his seven children.

He also has commercial experience, having served as chairman of the family chemical business Huntsman Corp – which has operations in China – and has spent time working on China trade issues for the US Trade Representative Office.

And he’s a Mormon, of course…

Not something that the Chinese press gives much time to discussing, beyond noting that Hong’s religion brought him to Taiwan on missionary work. Time spent in Taiwan is now much less of an issue too, because of the improving cross-straits relationship.

Otherwise little is said, although the Economic Observer mentions the “strict rules” of Huntsman’s faith. It also mentions the Chinese government “does not recognise” Mormon practices, and does not allow its missionaries to operate (i.e. plod the street seeking converts) in China.

Politico.com reports on a blog entry (soon scrubbed) by Utah legislator Craig Frank, which initially celebrated the appointment as a “big deal” offering Huntsman the chance to “teach the gospel”, as well as to advance US-China relations.

Unlikely, says the Salt Lake Tribune, as Huntsman won’t want to offend his hosts. Mormons in China know that they can answer questions about their faith but not initiate discussion. But the Tribune does wonder how the new ambassador will cope at official functions: Mormons are teetotal but the Chinese “put on huge feasts and there is always plenty of liquor.”

So everyone’s happy?

The Global Times thinks the fact that Obama announced the appointment himself shows “respect” for China.

Much better than a “professional diplomat” too, says the Economic Observer. Huntsman also has more experience than in 2001, when there were rumours that he might have been appointed.

At the time, Beijing thought that he was still a little “lightweight”, but now Huntsman could well head on to even bigger things, predicts the Shanghai Business Daily, perhaps following George H.W. Bush, from the ambassadorship to the White House.

The US newspapers agree that, by agreeing to go to China, Huntsman is ruling out a presidential bid in 2012.

But the Washington Post thinks he could be “perfectly positioned” for a run in 2016, with a stronger resume, some solid experience of dealing with the world’s biggest emerging superpower, and a reputation for bipartisan service in government.

It is a “genius move” on Obama’s part, says the Atlantic, as it removes from the domestic scene one of the few candidates who might have rescued the Republicans from “generational oblivion.”


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