China stint may help envoy in White House run

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2011, 12:00am

Jon Huntsman's short but impressive stint as Washington's top envoy to Beijing shapes him as a strong potential contender for the 2012 presidential election, Sino-US watchers say.

The fluent Putonghua speaker and former Utah governor on Monday resigned as President Barack Obama's man in China, effective from April 30, the White House said.

Although White House spokesman Robert Gibbs sidestepped questions about Huntsman's political intentions, the move is widely seen as removing an obstacle to his chances of seeking the Republican presidential nomination next year.

Observers say Huntsman's 18-month ambassadorship not only makes him stand out among Republican contenders, but would also give him an edge over Obama if they face off in an election.

Huntsman, 50, who lived in Taiwan as a Mormon missionary in the late 1980s, was picked by Obama in 2009 to oversee the crucial but ever-volatile bilateral relations between the world's dominant power and its emerging rival.

Huntsman, who was ambassador to Singapore under president George H. W. Bush, promised to humanise the Sino-US relationship with a 'hard-headed, realist' and pragmatic approach.

His charm offensive apparently worked. Despite his short tenure, mainland observers and internet critics compare him favourably with predecessor Clark Randt, who spent over seven years in Beijing under president George W. Bush.

'Huntsman knows how to deal with China, including its people, and he has done a pretty good job,' said Professor Jin Canrong, associate dean of Renmin University's school of international relations.

Apart from his Putonghua, analysts and mainland media attribute Huntsman's popularity in China to his knowledge of the country, his adopted daughter from the eastern city of Yangzhou and his ability to reach out to the people, especially university students and internet intellectuals. Unlike many of his predecessors, Huntsman was fond of going to universities around the country and delivering speeches on important bilateral issues directly to the people.

He made headlines in October when he brought the flavour of an American-style town-hall meeting to the legendary Sanwei Bookstore in Beijing, known for its liberal stance, by speaking to more than 200 people on politically sensitive issues such as human rights.

Internet researcher Zhao Jing said that under Huntsman, the US embassy in Beijing opened new communication channels with mainlanders and gauged opinions of bloggers and other opinion leaders.

Zhao, who met Huntsman at several round-table dialogues at the embassy, said: 'He is a really good listener and always willing to talk to people, whether you are a liberal or a conservative. We all like him.'

Huntsman was probably the first ambassador in Beijing to invite mainland bloggers to his usually tightly secured residence, Zhao recalled.

He was also known for his departure from diplomatic protocol when he rode his bike to the Foreign Ministry on a formal occasion instead of travelling in a motorcade.

An observer close to the embassy said Huntsman steered many positive changes to expand American diplomats' direct communication with the people.

'The ambassador attaches great importance to public diplomacy and has even opened microblog accounts on popular news portals such as sina. com and,' he said.

Analysts said Huntsman's calmness and vision were best reflected when Sino-US relations plunged to a low point last year over trade disputes and arms sales to Taiwan.

Tao Wenzhao , a senior research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of American Studies, said of Huntsman: 'He believes China's rise is not a threat to the US and remained cool-headed and moderate even at the height of the resurgence of China-bashing in the US.'

Jin said when there were setbacks in ties between the two powers, Huntsman was impressive with efforts to rekindle hopes through active public diplomacy.

Professor Zhu Feng, deputy director of Peking University's Centre for International and Strategic Studies, said Huntsman not only fulfilled his role as an executor of the Obama administration's China policy, but also became a key player in crucial bilateral dialogue. 'He is a good and competent American ambassador because he knows that bilateral ties must be put in a long-term, strategic framework,' he said.

James McGregor, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said Huntsman's departure was not good for US-China relations in the short term.

'Huntsman is the most capable and effective ambassador that Washington has dispatched to Beijing in many years,' he said.

Zhu said his stint in Beijing would be a stepping stone for his political career.

'Americans care about China's rise, especially as China has emerged as the US' top rival for global prominence. Huntsman's almost impeccable [record] make him stand out in the crowd of competitors because no one else has more experience in Asia than he,' he said.

Huntsman's history

1984 Visits Beijing as an aide with Ronald Reagan

1987-88 Learns Mandarin on Mormon mission to Taiwan

1989-91 Deputy commerce secretary for region

1992-93 Envoy to Singapore

1993-2001 Works in Huntsman family businesses

2001-03 Deputy US trade representative

2004-09 Governor of Utah

2009-2011 US ambassador to China