New U.S. Ambassador Sparks Emotional Debate in China: Adam Minter

Is Gary Locke, the first ethnically Chinese U.S. ambassador to China, a traitor to his Chinese heritage?

China’s editorialists, bloggers and microbloggers have debated this question in various forms, and within various forums, since President Barack Obama nominated Locke in March 2011. But the discussion has reached a new intensity with Locke’s recent arrival in Beijing, producing a remarkable degree of public introspection on attitudes toward the Chinese race, and Chinese self-identity.

Locke is a third-generation American of Chinese heritage, but in the eyes of many Chinese, he is a returning son.

The Chinese media and public follow so-called “overseas Chinese” -- politicians like Locke, intellectuals like Amy Chua, artists like architect I.M. Pei and musicians like Yo Yo Ma -- with passion. The Chinese media, both proud and insecure, use their accomplishments as benchmarks for measuring China’s standing in the world. The successes of these overseas Chinese are claimed as Chinese successes.

In October 1997, the Chinese Communist Party granted Locke, who was then the newly-elected governor of Washington State, a private audience with then-president Jiang Zemin. This was a rare and unusual honor for a U.S. governor from a minor (from the Chinese perspective) state. With his new position as the U.S. ambassador to China, many Chinese hope (and believe) that this returning son will remember his origins when considering U.S. interests against competing Chinese ones.

The nationalist, state-owned Global Times newspaper repeated a commonly held sentiment in China today: “Locke's Chinese origins might gain him some advantages in understanding China's public opinion, which is not necessarily always reserved and mild.”

In an unsigned editorial in Southern Metropolis Daily, the editors agreed with the Global Times: “Gary Locke has a natural cultural advantage in the problem of sharing values between China and the U.S. The two countries could take this opportunity.”

But equally common is a harsh counterpoint to this optimistic point-of-view: Locke is an (American) wolf in (Chinese) sheep’s clothing who will overcompensate for his ethnic background by coming down harder on China than, perhaps, even a Caucasian U.S. ambassador. And, because of his Chinese face, he can accomplish his nefarious goals more efficiently.

The prestigious, highly influential and government-owned Guangming Daily wrote:

If a robber could earn your money through cheating on a mah-jongg table, he would not rob you flagrantly. And if he could further dress himself up in a dignified appearance, you would drop your guard naturally or not even regard him as a robber any more.

China has 55 officially-recognized minority ethnicities, but 92 percent of the Chinese public claims a Han Chinese background. Such homogenized racial identity isn’t unusual in East Asia; Korea and Japan are even less diversified. What is unusual in China, however, is the degree to which majority racial attitudes are discussed and dissected in private homes and, when the occasion arises, in the Chinese media.

Race relations in American politics often provide inspiration for such talk. For instance, President Obama’s candidacy and election stirred much public soul-searching on whether or not a Chinese minority could ever ascend to the top of the Chinese Communist Party. (The most common answer: "No.")

But Locke’s new position as U.S. ambassador to China strikes a deeper chord with the Chinese than Obama's presidency. It has forced a tradition-bound East Asian society to question the global reach of its homogenized self-image.

On August 16, Wu Xianghong, a business columnist with the Guangzhou-based Southern Metropolitan Daily -- China’s most important independent newspaper -- published a remarkable essay. In it, Wu identified a peculiar type of Chinese racism:

Most Chinese don't have too many opportunities to have contact with people of other races. So their racism usually isn’t expressed outwardly … in many cases, it is a vague racist belief: that all Chinese have innate "Chinese blood" which will never change because of their gene inheritance … even he who was born in a foreign land will have an inalterable Chinese soul.

This kind of racialist thinking influences Chinese perceptions of Locke. For example, a popular pejorative is to refer to a Chinese person who has adopted Western values as a "banana": white on the inside and yellow on the outside. Wu suggested that some media representatives have recently contended that: “he who is a 'banana man' will be even more anti-China than a full blooded American.”

Wu further explained that some Chinese, “expect Gary Locke to be more familiar with Chinese people and to be better than any other American ambassador.” Of this, he expresses contempt:

I am afraid that [Locke’s] understanding of China is much less than former ambassador Jon Huntsman, a white man who speaks fluent Chinese, due to the fact that Gary Locke speaks only a little Cantonese and no Chinese at all.

The racialist approach to Locke is not pervasive in China. On the popular microblogs, some netizens say that Locke is first and foremost an American. A user of the Sina Weibo microblog, Nico ever, tweeted:

Ethnic Chinese like Gary Locke who were born and grew up in America are indeed American people. Don't include them in our group mawkishly because they have a Chinese face and they’ve achieved something. Their achievements have no relationship to China. Ethnic Chinese do not equal the Chinese people.

Still, for all of the talk about Locke's affinities and opportunities, he will likely remain a charged figure for the Chinese to measure themselves against.

Late last week, a Chinese-American businessman photographed Locke wearing a backpack while buying his own coffee at a Starbucks in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Chinese microbloggers, bloggers and editorialists jumped at the chance to contrast Locke’s no-frills independence while traveling with the grandiose entourages that accompany even the lowliest Chinese officials.

Liu Runhua, director of the Shenzhen Civil Affairs Bureau, tweeted on Sina Weibo:

Frankly speaking, if civil officials with a low position such as me go travelling, we will certainly carry our own luggage. If we are part of an official occasion, we will be accompanied by colleagues and our luggage will be carried. Shame! We should learn from him! We should pay our respects to him!

However, not every commentator on the photo was as admiring. Some suggested that Locke’s entourage-free travel reflected the U.S. government’s financial problems. And, perhaps more damaging, some suggested that Locke’s no-frills persona is fake, and even calculated.

“The performance of Gary Locke is both a result of his personal quality and a type of PR,” wrote Dou Hanzhang, a former journalist with the state-owned Xinhua news service on Sina Weibo.

Soon though, the discussion will likely return from the semiotics of Locke's backpack to the larger question of Chinese identity and achievement.

An Puruo (the pen name of Walter Huang, a well-known U.S.-based Chinese investor and writer) used the story of Locke’s immigrant grandparents in America to reflect upon the difficulties of China's migrant workers today -- especially their struggles to provide their children with a strong education. In Shanghai, for example, migrant children must attend specially designated migrant schools; they do not have access to the city’s superior, resident-only educational system. An’s reflections are poignant, and pointed:

A hundred years ago, Gary Locke's grandfather arrived in America as a migrant worker. What has allowed his grandson the opportunity to become a U.S. ambassador? It is equal rights, including the right to receive an education. If his uneducated, non-English-speaking peasant grandfather needed to obtain different kinds of certificates (i.e., Temporary Residence Permit Card, Proof of Residence, Employment Permit, and a Residence Registration by Local Township Government) to send his children to school, then his children might have lost the opportunity to attend school long ago. Think about it.

If the discussion over Locke’s American ambassadorship is any indication, China’s netizens are thinking about him as a symbol of equality obtained, and equality denied. His Chinese race certainly plays a role in generating this attention, but it is quickly yielding far more interesting narratives. In contemporary China, at least, that qualifies as "post-racial."

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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