In his Beijing office, U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman keeps a wall-hanging emblazoned with the characters hu xiang bang zhu, hu xiang xue xi, which means "help each other, learn from each other." As Huntsman prepares to leave his post on Apr. 30. for a possible White House run in 2012, his hosts hope that what he has learned during his 18 months in China will help foster warmer ties between Beijing and Washington. "If he's elected, we'll be happy," says Sun Zhe, director of the Center for U.S.-China Relations at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "I trust him. No matter what he does, he will continue to care about this relationship."
Huntsman, 50, leaves as perhaps the most prominent U.S. envoy to China since George H.W. Bush headed the Beijing mission almost four decades ago. He has won respect from the Chinese, who praise his efforts to boost ties between the world's two biggest economies, even as executives credit him with helping to fend off rules that would have made it harder to do business in the mainland.
The former Utah governor, who learned Chinese as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and adopted a Chinese daughter, has been treated to glowing profiles in Chinese magazines. He likes to tell reporters about rides on his Mao-era Forever-brand bicycle down Beijing's alleyways, and peppers his speeches in China with American-accented phrases in Mandarin. Huntsman has made a "definite contribution" to Sino-U.S. ties, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters on Feb. 1.
Even so, business executives say he hasn't been a pushover. Shortly after his arrival in August 2009, Huntsman brought together European and Asian diplomats and dozens of trade groups to craft a coordinated response to Indigenous Innovation, a program designed to promote homegrown technology. The new rules threatened to shut foreign companies out of China's $112 billion government procurement market. After months of pressure, China last April said it would delay implementation of the regulations. "He knew China, so nobody could fool him," says James McGregor, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China who is a senior counselor at consulting firm APCO Worldwide. "In China you sometimes can measure progress by stopping bad policies in their tracks."
As a son of the founder of Huntsman Corp., an $8 billion chemical producer, Huntsman is well-versed in the needs of business. "You have to listen very closely to what the business community is saying on [Chinese regulations] because they are out there on the firing line...trying to make their ventures work," Huntsman said in an interview last June in his office, where a model of a FedEx plane sits on his desk to remind him of the company's troubles breaking into the Chinese express-mail market. "We can bring some clarity to the issue for the Washington policy makers."
He hasn't done much to help narrow trade imbalances during his tenure, even though China in June allowed the yuan to start appreciating after two years during which it was virtually pegged to the dollar. (The currency has advanced more than 3 percent since then.)
Nonetheless, says AmCham-China President Christian Murck, Huntsman has been instrumental in bridging the gaps separating American and Chinese policy makers and businesspeople, and focusing them on realistic goals. In December he helped obtain a Chinese pledge to work on an agreement to end restrictions on American beef and poultry imports, as well as assurances that China would reduce software piracy. The ambassador, says Murck, has managed to get U.S. business to work on priorities that "the Chinese can reasonably be expected to deliver."
The bottom line: As U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman mulls a run for the White House, Americans and Chinese alike praise his skill.