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.”
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
Tang Chaohui/Sina Weibo
U.S. Embassy Beijing Press via Getty Images