In his history of the Communist Party, Friends and Enemies, author Kerry Brown explains the distance between the people and the party: “Chinese regard their leaders as remote, living in a world whose atmosphere is fortified by centuries of elitism and privilege. Those that enter this domain almost always pull up the drawbridge.”
But the new US ambassador in Beijing, Gary Locke, is doing a very good job at showing that the drawbridge can be left down.
Many Chinese have been amazed by a recent photo of Locke in a Starbucks in Seattle Airport. Not only were they impressed that he had ordered and paid for his own coffee, but he was even carrying his own backpack! Upon arrival in Beijing, the Locke family also carried their own bags out of the airport before driving away in a distinctly modest car.
“To many Americans, there was probably nothing unusual about this. But to most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual that it almost defied belief,” wrote Chen Weihua, in a column that appeared in the China Daily. Chinese officials much more junior than Locke would almost certainly have a secretary to help with the bags, says Chen. And a subordinate would have been sent off to buy the boss a coffee.
The Starbucks photo soon went viral on the internet, earning overwhelmingly positive comments. “American officials are to serve the people, but Chinese officials are served by the people, that’s the difference,” was one interpretation on Sina, cited by BBC.
Locke is not the first US official to make an impression with his informal behaviour. His predecessor, Jon Huntsman, was well-known for eschewing luxury cars for trips to the foreign ministry in Beijing – choosing instead to cycle across town.
President Obama also caused a stir when he arrived in Shanghai last year holding up his own umbrella as he left Air Force One.
A lesson for the US, perhaps, to concentrate on the small things in trying to rebuild American prestige in China?
Locke’s first public appearance was an attempt to revive confidence in China that America is good for its debt (see China Ink). But some netizens then started making the obvious comparison between Locke’s parsimony and the federal government’s profligate spending.
“If American officials are so frugal, why can’t the government control spending and why do they borrow so much?” wondered one netizen.
For Locke, at least, the issue of China’s Treasury holdings is never going to be far away.
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