Gary Locke, the US ambassador to China, is not the kind of person that many would describe as a polarising figure. With his tidy haircut, neutral attire and polite manner, Locke’s appearance oozes diplomat. Even his glasses – lightweight and frameless – seem to have been chosen so as not to cause controversy.
But Locke is arguably one of the more divisive figures in China today, with the authorities furious at his role in the case of activist lawyer Chen Guangcheng, while many ordinary Chinese sing his praises.
Locke’s name (and his new nickname online, ‘director of the appeals and petitions office’) were banned on Sina Weibo this month. Then a coordinated propaganda push against the ambassador ended in embarrassment when netizens shouted down the state press.
Why all the noise? After all, Locke was billed as a great hope for Sino-US relations when he arrived for his tour of duty last year. One factor is Locke’s race. As the first Chinese-American to fill the ambassadorial post, he has attracted a huge amount of extra attention.
Locke doesn’t even speak Mandarin like his predecessor Jon Huntsman. But there were early hopes that his heritage would allow him to act as a “bridge” between America and China. “The appointment of an American-Chinese will be a step forward,” the People’s Daily predicted sagely before Locke took up his role, adding that his background would allow him to understand the Chinese way of dealing with issues.
Apparently that includes “a subtleness that can be difficult to explain in words”.
Netizens were not so sure at the time, with accusations that Locke was a “traitor” and “a fake foreign devil”. But strangely, these rival perspectives on the new ambassador were soon to switch around.
As regular readers of WiC will know, Locke began to win over netizens almost immediately.
Departing the US for his new home, he was seen at Seattle airport carrying his own backpack and trying to buy a coffee with a coupon (see WiC119). A Chinese businessman took a photo and posted it on China’s Twitter-like service weibo. The image, along with comments about Locke’s unassuming behaviour, soon went viral. Before he had even landed in Beijing he was a star in the making. “He may be Chinese and he may be an official but he doesn’t behave like a Chinese official,” was a typical contribution.
In his first few weeks in China Locke was then spotted behaving in an understated way: flying economy class to the World Economic Forum in Dalian, riding a bike in a park, taking his daughter for an ice cream and waiting patiently in a queue for a cable car trip at the Great Wall.
Each episode made the news. Sections of the media began applauding such behaviour, and holding it up as a mirror to China’s own officialdom, which is rarely seen bothering much with its children or enduring the ordinary inconveniences of daily life.
After a while, that seems to have needled a few of the elite and the media backlash began.
A few weeks after Locke’s airport photos first caused a sensation, the Global Times started accusing journalists of “romanticising” Locke and called on editors to “show restraint”. “It is not suitable to overly praise a foreign ambassador,” it sniffed, before adding that Locke himself “should have purposely avoided being treated as a mirror”.
The editorial even went on to suggest that his behaviour was a publicity stunt purposefully designed to reflect badly on his Chinese peers.
“He enjoys the fact that his acts are praised by Chinese media, even though he knows he is not as plain as described,” it warned.
But that was nothing compared to an editorial in the Guangming Daily entitled: “Be Vigilant to the Neo-Colonialism of America Brought by Gary Locke.”
By way of explanation the newspaper offered: “His Chinese blood attracts the eyes of Chinese around the world, enabling him to win public opinion. But who knows that this doesn’t just expose the evil purpose of the US, to use a Chinese to play off against Chinese, and to instigate political turbulence in China?”
A little harsh for a man who hadn’t done much beyond buy his own coffee and ice cream..
The online backlash against this second piece was so fierce that the article was quickly removed from the newspaper’s website. After that editors were simply instructed to pay as little attention to Locke as they could, the Washington Post reported.
The directive pretty much held until it emerged that staff at the US embassy had smuggled Chen Guangcheng onto the premises, giving him safe haven for six days. Locke, who was on holiday in Bali at the time, flew back to intervene in the situation. By then the central government was fuming at American meddling in its internal affairs. Again the state media rolled into action. Four Beijing-based newspapers sought to whip up anger against America and its local representative, accusing him of being “disreputable” and playing “little tricks”.
The Beijing Daily was one of the most outspoken and then used its weibo account to demand that the ambassador disclose his personal assets.
“Gary Locke lives in the US embassy which costs billions of US dollars. He commutes in a bullet-proof limousine…can this be called modesty? And why does Gary Locke not announce these facts to the public?… So cut the show of incorruptibility!”
Leaving aside that no previous ambassador had been asked to publish their bank statements, the newspaper had made a fatal error. All high-ranking US politicians must disclose their personal assets. Before the US embassy even had a chance to respond, internet users had flooded The Beijing Daily’s weibo with links to documents in which Locke had already done what it was requesting.
Such was the level of mockery online that searches for The Beijing Daily by name were soon coming up as banned terms on the Sina Weibo service. Others asked whether the newspaper would be insisting on the same disclosure from China’s own political class. A typical rebuke: “Oh, editors and comrades of Beijing Daily, how are you? How tough things are for you. No matter how we try to refine the idea of whether or not Gary Locke is corrupt, there’s the looming issue of our leaders living in Zhongnanhai. And how much more resplendent are those official residences? Why don’t you have a look?”
Yet some seem not to have learned from this humiliating experience. Qin Feng, the niece of former Chinese foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, and a reporter for Pheonix TV, then attracted further rebuke when she called Locke “a banana” on her own weibo.
The ethnic slur was especially ill-timed as Locke had just wowed his admirers once again, following an account of how he had kneeled down next to a young girl as he spoke to her at a festival in Shanghai last October.
The girl went on to write an essay about the experience, which was widely read online last month. In it she asks her own father to kneel occasionally next to her, so that she can feel he is listening too.
“My head is just full of that image of him [Locke] kneeling before me. I can see clearly those eyes of his, so full of care and love, and those wisps of white hair next to his ears,” she glows.
One wonders whether the Chinese propaganda bosses might actually be on to something. Maybe the US embassy does have a crack public relations team working on Mr Wonderful’s image after all…
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.