The List

Comrade Locke

Why is China so obsessed with America's backpack-wearing, coupon-clipping ambassador?

China doesn’t know what to make of Gary Locke. The first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing, the friendly, self-effacing Locke has become an online celebrity for acting like the opposite of a typical Chinese government official. His fans think he’s selfless and heroic; his detractors call him deceitful and traitorous for representing the United States instead of China.

The Locke debate began last August with a photo taken of the incoming ambassador at the Seattle airport on his way to China to take up his post. The photographer, a tech entrepreneur named Tang Chaohui, watched in disbelief as Locke bought his own coffee. "The funny thing is Ambassador Locke pulled out some kind of coupon and gave it to the cashier," Tang wrote. "The cashier looked it up and down, and said he couldn’t accept it. The ambassador wasn’t angry, he just smiled, took the coupon back, and got out his credit card. The server kind of didn't give him face." In China, government officials don't buy their own coffee, let alone use coupons. Tang's post was "re-tweeted" more than 31,000 times and received at least 8,400 comments, most of them positive. But China’s state-owned press gave him mixed reviews: While many editorials noted that Chinese officials could learn from his humble behavior, the Guangming Daily warned it was all a "neocolonialist" trick.

Even with this heady beginning, some saw Locke walking a fine line between his American and Chinese identities. Last August, political cartoonist Sun Baoxin rendered Locke as a tai chi warrior in the midst of U.S.-China relations battles. Locke made it clear from his first press conference that although he’s the “child of Chinese immigrants,” he and his family “personally represent America and America’s promise as a land of freedom, equality, and opportunity.” Unlike his predecessor John Huntsman, Locke speaks no Mandarin. "Gary Locke, that banana man, with his white heart," snarked Qin Feng, niece of former Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing, on her Weibo account in early May.

Locke burst again into the spotlight when he cut short a vacation in Bali to help bring self-taught legal activist Chen Guangcheng, fleeing illegal house arrest, into the U.S. Embassy. The recriminations came on strong: The Beijing Youth Daily blasted Locke for "putting on a show," while the Beijing Daily News warned him against "flagrantly meddling in other country's domestic politics." So did the praise: Netizens have nicknamed Locke "Director of the Office of Petitions and Appeals," his "office" being the last resort for Chinese citizens seeking justice.

Here’s Ambassador Locke as Lei Feng, the epitome of selfless devotion in Chinese Communist Party lore. Lei Feng was a Mao-era model People’s Liberation Army soldier said to have “donated all of his spare time to social causes.” Since 1963, China has celebrated "Learn from Lei Feng Day" with public service, sometimes in costume. The Locke-as-Lei-Feng meme, which emerged after the news of Chen Guangcheng's escape, puts a sly twist on state propaganda. What could be more ironic than casting a "neocolonialist" American as the paragon of Chinese communist virtue?

The popularity Locke enjoyed last summer is now muddied by anger over his role in Chen's flight to the embassy. This Photoshopped image by ErDongchen, a nationalist Weibo user from Beijing, is sarcastically entitled “American Politician’s Shoddy Behavior.” The image, showing a downtrodden Locke receiving Cultural Revolution-style punishment, continues to make the rounds on Weibo. The ambassador's “crimes,” strung around his neck, include flying economy class, carrying his own backpack, and using a coupon to buy coffee. “Ambassador Locke, you have thrown yourself into the boundless sea of China’s corruption,” ErDongchen intones. The post seems too serious not to be a joke, but irony can be hard to read online. Popular Weibo user Liu Buchen re-posted this image and asked if the ambassador would ever again "dare to make a show for the Chinese people." Liu's post disappeared on May 3.

Cartoonist Dashix also riffs on Lei Feng. In this May 6 illustration, the flag quotes Mao Zedong: "Serve the people." Beneath it, in black characters, is a message from China's netizens: "Learn from Comrade Gary Locke." On his Weibo, Dashix posts his cartoon alongside Erdongchen’s, asking “Should we learn from [Locke] or knock him down? It certainly is a thorny question.”

Locke's fan club has withstood the tumult of the last few weeks. A Beijing Weibo user who calls himself Poetic Landscape-Marvelous Painting snapped a photo with the ambassador on May 8, "again in economy class, again without pomp." His post has been re-tweeted more than 2,300 times and has received nearly 800 comments. In it, he writes: "Sigh. I must admit, I've been brainwashed again.”


Tang Chaohui/Sina Weibo

Sun Baoxin

U.S. Embassy Beijing Press via Getty Images


ErDongchen/Sina Weibo

The List

Dictators With Mommy Issues

Some of the world's most ruthless leaders have had surprisingly close -- if deeply troubled -- relationships with their mothers.

The Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, who was very close with his mother, once remarked that "people who know that they are preferred or favored by their mother give evidence in their lives of a peculiar self-reliance and an unshakeable optimism which often seem like heroic attributes and bring actual success to their possessors."

Whether you subscribe to Freud's theories or not, it's certainly true that some of the world's most powerful rulers have had fascinating relationships with their mothers -- some surprisingly loving, others ambivalent or just plain bitter. Alexander the Great's power-hungry mother, Olympias, is thought to have been a driving force behind her son's ascension to the throne of Macedonia. Napoleon Bonaparte's mother, Letizia, taught her son discipline ("she sometimes made me go to bed without supper," he once recalled) and followed him to exile in Elba and then back to Paris before the Battle of Waterloo.

Modern-day dictators have had their share of complicated mother-son relationships as well. This Mother's Day, instead of giving your mother a flashy title like "anti-Japanese heroine" (Kim Jong Il's mom) or "Mother of Militants" (Saddam Hussein's mom), you may just want to thank her for not raising a tyrant.


Country: Germany

Mother: Klara

Relationship: Although he often clashed with his father over his poor performance at school, the Führer adored his mother. Hitler left his home in 1907 as a teenager to try to make it as an artist in Vienna (Klara encouraged his artistic endeavors) but returned briefly after his mother died of cancer that same year, leaving him an orphan. In Mein Kampf, which Hitler wrote in the 1920s, he reflected on his reaction to her passing:

I am thankful for that period in my life because it hardened me and enabled me to be as tough as I now am. And I am even more thankful because I appreciate the fact that I was thus saved from the emptiness of a life of ease and that a mother's darling was taken from tender arms and handed over to Adversity as to a new mother. Though I then rebelled against it as too hard a fate, I am grateful that I was thrown into a world of misery and poverty and thus came to know the people for whom I was afterwards to fight.

Eduard Bloch, the Jewish doctor who treated Klara, would later recall that while Hitler "was not a ‘mother's boy' in the usual sense," he had "never witnessed a closer attachment." He had also never witnessed "anyone so prostrate with grief as Adolf Hitler" as he sat by his mother's deathbed, sketching her to "preserve a last impression." Some have speculated that Bloch's failure to save Klara contributed to Hitler's hatred of Jews. But the Nazis permitted Bloch to leave Austria for the United States in 1940, and Bloch claimed that Hitler once remarked, "If all Jews were like him, there would be no Jewish question."

In March, the tombstone marking the grave of Hitler's parents in the Austrian village where he grew up was removed after it became a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis.

AFP/Getty Images


Country: Soviet Union    

Mother: Ekaterina ("Keke")

Relationship: Stalin, like Hitler, was fond of his mother but had a tumultuous relationship with his father, an alcoholic who savagely beat him and Keke ("Soso," as Stalin was called, once arrived at a police officer's house in the Georgian village where he grew up with his face covered in blood, yelling "he's killing my mother!").

Keke worked hard as a laundress to enroll Stalin in a church school and later a theological seminary -- even fighting to send him back to school when his father, who had since left the home, briefly kidnapped Soso, and set him up as an apprentice cobbler. But she too meted out corporal punishment and grew angry with Stalin when he misbehaved at school. And while Stalin installed his mother in a palace in Georgia during his rise to power, he rarely visited her. His letters to her included lines such as "Dear mother, please live for 10,000 years. Kisses, Soso" and "I know you're disappointed in me but what can I do? I'm busy and can't write often."

When Stalin visited his mother in 1935, shortly before her death, a doctor who was treating Keke recalled a conversation that went something like this:

"Why did you beat me so hard?"

"That's why you turned out so well. Joseph -- who exactly are you now?"

"Remember the tsar? Well, I'm like the tsar."

"You'd have done better to have become a priest."

AFP/Getty Images


Country: Zimbabwe 

Mother: Bona

Relationship: Mugabe doesn't speak often about his mother, a devout Catholic who sank into depression after her husband abandoned the family and Mugabe's two older brothers died. But he opened up to journalist Heidi Holland several years ago, noting that books were his main companions as a child. "I lived in my mind a lot," he recalled. "I liked talking to myself." Holland's takeaway?

Although the family was desperately poor, it was the emotional deprivation of his childhood that scarred Robert for life. While his parental grandfather did his best to compensate for the absent father, teaching Robert how to catch birds for the family pot, it was to austere Bona that Robert looked forlornly for affection....

As he grew up, Robert got his sense of who he was from Bona. She left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God Himself. She may also have viewed him as a substitute for her own failure to serve the Church as she and her parents had intended.

Bona's lofty aspirations for her son make one anecdote in Peter Godwin's recent biography of Mugabe particularly baffling. A former student of Mugabe's told Godwin he was with Bona in 1980 when Mugabe was elected Zimbabwe's first black prime minister. "Bona was not happy he had won," the student explained. "We were at her house and she said, ‘He is not capable of doing it. He is not the kind of person who will look after other people.'"

Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images



Country: Yugoslavia

Mother: Stanislava

Relationship: Milosevic entered the world at a tumultuous time; he was born in a Serbian town during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, and his father abandoned the family a few years afterwards. Milosevic's mother, a teacher and Communist activist, "became the center of her son's childhood universe," Adam LeBor writes in his biography of Milosevic. "Stanislava took care every day to send Slobodan out in a fresh white shirt, like a junior version of the Communist official she hoped he would be." The New York Times described the young Milosevic as a "pudgy loner with few friends."

When Milosevic headed off to university in Belgrade, however, he began visiting home less frequently and started dating a fellow student named Mira Markovic, who did not get along with Stanislava. In 1974, an increasingly depressed Stanislava hanged herself at the family home, just over a decade after Milosevic's father had committed suicide.

Milosevic appears to have blamed himself for his mother's death. "My mother never forgave me for Mira," he reportedly told a friend.

Frederic Hugon/AFP/Getty Images


Country: Haiti

Mother: Simone

Relationship: When "Baby Doc" Duvalier succeeded his father, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, as the ruler of Haiti in 1971, at the age of 19, his mother, a voodoo enthusiast of humble origins, emerged as a major power behind the throne. But things began to change in 1980 when Baby Doc married Michele Bennett, the daughter of a wealthy Haitian businessman and the daughter-in-law of a man who led a failed coup against Papa Doc.

"Since the marriage, Simone Duvalier, whose official title is Guardian of the Revolution, has apparently been edged almost completely out of the palace picture by her daughter-in-law and spends most of her time in Paris," the Los Angeles Times reported in 1985.

The mother-son-daughter-in-law triangle only got more bizarre. In 1986, when Baby Doc was ousted from power, Simone joined him and his wife in exile -- first in the French Alps and then in Paris.

"In recent years," the New York Times noted in its 1997 obituary for Simone, "after Jean-Claude's bitter divorce from Michele, Mrs. Duvalier was again said to be with her son in France, amid widespread reports they were living in a state of virtual poverty."

Baby Doc returned to Haiti in 2011 and is technically under house arrest and facing charges of crimes against humanity -- though he's somehow managing to dine with friends at upscale bistros and even give commencement addresses. "Was Jean-Claude Duvalier scary?" his lawyer asked recently. "Not Duvalier. But yes, the people around him, secret police, yes, some of them were very scary. But Jean-Claude is a nice guy, believe me."

A nice guy who loved his mother.

AFP/Getty Images