When America’s first Chinese-American governor tours Tiananmen Square today on his first full day in China, he will be bombarded by a chaotic whirl:
Busloads of schoolchildren, cadres of boyish police in Communist Party regalia, packs of tourists snapping photos of Mao Zedong’s looming portrait, all walking shoulder to shoulder eating braids of fried dough and candied cherries and waving miniature red flags.
But if the tightly-packed throngs here make the New York City subway at rush hour feel like a remote island hideaway, the chaos is nothing compared to the political tumult Washington Gov. Gary Locke is stepping into.
While Locke’s heritage clearly gives him a special cachet here, as high-ranking officials claim him as one of their own, his stature comes with a cost.
The governor, whose Chinese-ness will be on display more than at any other time in his career, will have to navigate more gingerly than most political visitors in order to accomplish his goal of promoting Washington business without offending either his constituents at home or his hosts here in Asia.
“Everyone in the Chinese government knows of him,” said Wang Jisi of the Institute for American Studies Academy, a government-run think tank in Beijing.
“We heard a lot about him when he was elected and I’m sure he will be treated the very best on his visit.”
Or, as U.S. embassy foreign commerce specialist Alan Turley put it: “It’s not just a small deal that he’s here, it’s a really, really big deal. Once you’re Chinese, your always Chinese. They don’t believe in this assimilation stuff.”
Riding this wave of good will, Locke hopes to help clinch a long-awaited Boeing deal that could be worth up to $6 billion in aircraft orders. But he wants to push the purchase without becoming embroiled in a debate over human rights.
Locke’s presence has added significance because he’s become a symbol of Chinese-American integration in American politics, a role model for ascendent Asian-Americans.
While reinforcing this image, Locke doesn’t wish to be seen as vulnerable to the Chinese government, which has been accused of trying to influence U.S. elections. Locke has said some of the criticism of campaign giving by Asian donors has been tinged with racial prejudice.
Given the delicate political maneuvering facing Locke on his swing through China, Hong Kong and his ancestral hamlet of Jilong, it’s no wonder that just before he left he said he was “very, very nervous about this trip.”
“Every word you say and how you say it is taken with deep meaning,” said U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Seattle, who toured China last March on a similar mission to promote trade and open up relations. “The Chinese Government will expect Gary to bring up certain issues. But he has to raise them in a respectful way, not just, ‘We’re American and you better do it our way.”’
Locke is asking leaders here to take notice of Washington state at a time when China’s vast bureaucracy and 1.4 billion people are in the throes of an identity crisis.
Locke’s trip comes one week after the 15th National Communist Party Congress, where market-oriented economic development was cautiously embraced, and just weeks before China’s President Jiang Zemin attends a summit in Washington, D.C., with President Clinton.
The summit, the first since the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, will be followed next spring with a visit to China by Clinton.
U.S embassy officials, who were scheduled to host a welcoming reception for Locke last night, agreed the governor will have to tread carefully.
“When (Vice President Al) Gore was here, just when the fund-raising scandal was breaking, he was blasted by the press,” said one embassy official, who asked not to be named. “Everyone ignored the visit and just covered the scandal. Hopefully, we’re past that and it won’t happen again.”
Pooh-poohing the possible pitfalls, Locke remains determined to use his influence to help business at home, even though he doesn’t expect the Chinese to give away the store.
“I think I have greater entree and a little better access than other governors,” Locke said. “I think the fact that I’m Chinese American can help open doors. It will enable me - perhaps compared to other governors - to say something the Chinese government might pay a little closer attention to. But that doesn’t mean everything I say will be accepted because there are some fundamental issues separating China and the United States.”
That Locke won’t exploit this entree to come right out and chasten the Chinese government for its poor human rights record rankles some activists.
“I don’t think the governor should think there’s a trade off, that in order to secure the Boeing deal he’s got to remain silent on human rights,” said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington, D.C., director of Asia Watch. “This is what the Chinese government plays on, a fear that the economic rug will be pulled out from anyone who is critical. There’s no reason for Locke to capitulate to that kind of manipulation.”
But there are powerful reasons for Locke to try to open doors.
China has the world’s fastest growing aviation market, projected to purchase $124 billion worth of planes in the next 20 years.
In the past, China has overlooked Boeing in favor of rival European jet maker Airbus to signal displeasure with U.S. attacks on how Beijing punishes dissidents, suppresses Tibet and sells missiles to rogue states.
“They don’t do business in the way that we’re used to, which is, your product is the best, you sell it, without any tit for tat,” Murray said. “In China every deal sends a message. Everything, in fact, is a way to get out the message.”
On the streets, far from the labyrinthine intricacies of the central government, politics is nothing more than an afterthought.