Years before U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to China, he made the first of a series of official visits to the country of his father’s birth, after his election in Washington state as America’s first Chinese-American governor.
“He was a rock star. He was treated very much as a head of state there. People in supermarkets came up to him and recognized him,” said Roger Nyhus, Locke’s former communications director.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao made his first state visit to the U.S. in 2006 to meet with former President George W. Bush, he stopped first in Seattle for a tour at Boeing Co. and dinner at the home of Microsoft founder Bill Gates in a visit coordinated, at the request of the Chinese government, by Locke.
There was a payoff. The Starbucks store Locke helped open in Guangzhou was part of what became a doubling of Washington state exports to China to more than $5 billion a year.
On Wednesday, President Barack Obama officially named the former Washington governor to succeed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in Beijing, calling the relationship with China “one of the most critical of the 21st century.”
Locke, 61 and a lawyer by training, comes to what is arguably America’s most crucial foreign diplomatic posting. Many caution that he has little experience in some of the stiffest dilemmas the U.S. faces in its dealings with China: how to manage an increasingly assertive China in talks over North Korea, Iran and possibly now Libya; balancing escalating oil imports and attempts to limit greenhouse gases; ongoing concerns over human rights in China; fractious discord over valuation of China’s currency.
The prospect of a Chinese-American becoming the American ambassador to China is rousing strong emotions in Beijing, revealing a thicket of conflicting feelings about race, national identity and patriotism.
Much of the reaction to Locke’s nomination has been positive.
The state-run Global Times on Wednesday quoted an analyst saying Locke would understand the Chinese way of dealing with issues, including “the subtleness that can be difficult to explain in words.”
But a deep antagonism is evident in a profusion of less-than-diplomatic commentary on the Internet, a venue where Chinese feel free to vent.
“A fake foreign devil who cannot even speak Chinese,” wrote one anonymous contributor to an Internet forum on public affairs.
“I don’t like this guy who has forgotten his ancestors” wrote someone from Dalian on a popular news site, while another from Sichuan piped in: “If he wanted to be Chinese, he wouldn’t live in America.”
Some Chinese call the commerce secretary a “traitor” and resort to ethnic slurs to disparage his being born and raised in the United States.
The hostility is no surprise to Chinese-Americans who live or work in China and are alternately embraced as long-lost relatives or scorned for deserting the motherland. They often are not recognized as foreigners and have difficulty getting into diplomatic compounds where many expatriates reside.
A running joke already among the Chinese-Americans in China is that Locke better carry his passport.
Locke does not speak Mandarin Chinese, unlike the current ambassador, a former Utah governor who was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.
But Huntsman, who is reportedly exploring a run for president, angered the Chinese government by appearing Feb. 20 on a pedestrian mall in Beijing where dissidents had called for pro-democracy protests. The embassy said he happened to walk by with his family.
“To pick Gary Locke is a way for Obama to make amends,” said Zhou Shijian, a senior fellow at the Center for U.S.-China relations at Tsinghua University. “He looks Chinese, but he is American and will represent the American government’s interests.”
While most analysts reckon Locke’s confirmation will be a shoo-in, Republican lawmakers have suggested they may use the occasion to criticize the Obama administration’s China policies. Critics in both parties have complained about the administration’s soft hand in addressing China’s undervalued currency, which many see as a big culprit in the huge U.S. trade deficit with China.
“There are a lot of reasons we could imagine that he’s not going to sail through as he did with his nomination as commerce secretary,” said David M. Bachman, political science professor and former China studies chair at the University of Washington.