No time wasted in calling out US envoy's 'showmanship'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am

Since the US senate confirmed his appointment in July, Ambassador Gary Locke has risen to become America's top star in China.

The 'secret weapon' for his immediate success, as the Chinese official media have discovered, is his modest, sometimes humble, everyday behaviour - like carrying his own luggage, flying in economy class, waiting in line at a tour site, talking to college students like 'an uncle next door' as Chinese news reports put it, and having meals with visiting US Vice-President Joe Biden in 'ordinary restaurants'.

Such is the contrast with the usual habits of Chinese officials that the state media have wasted no time in branding Locke's actions as 'show business' or 'behavioural art' to promote American values.

At a World Economic Forum event recently, a CCTV newscaster took a gentle jibe at Locke, asking the ambassador whether he flew economy to Beijing because he felt the US owed China too much money.

On August 15, the website owned by Guangming Daily, a newspaper directly controlled by the party's propaganda department, published a lengthy commentary calling Locke a 'symbol of neocolonialism in the internet age'.

It said his appointment signalled an 'all-round breakout of ideological warfare between China and the US'.

On Thursday, an editorial in the usually nationalistic Global Times (Chinese edition) even indicated that Locke was wrong to attract 'way too much attention' to his everyday behaviour, rather than to his main duty as an ambassador.

'A US ambassador to China should devote himself to the development of the relationship between the two countries by dissolving mutual misgivings, rather than try to play with Chinese opinions in a clever way as to cause further complications and misunderstandings,' the editorial said.

The appropriate thing for Locke to do, it said, would be to refrain from showmanship.

Interestingly enough, shortly after its publication, the article was removed from the site (although it can still be read on other websites).

Its writer, Xiang Xiaodong, soon published his second critique of so-called American neocolonialism on the Maoist website Utopia, or, lamenting a lack of sympathy for his views, even from the leftist camp.

A counterargument came in the form of a commentary in China Youth Daily, which argued that it was the rampant and reckless waste of public funds in China, rather than Locke's modesty, that was the real issue. Without such waste, Locke's behaviour would not have had any effect, even if it was just showmanship.

A more pointed piece appeared on the website of China Newsweek on Thursday. It compared the tone of the comments on neocolonialism to cold war-era rhetoric.

To suggest that the US could win over the hearts of the Chinese people through the modest behaviour of its ambassador was 'miserable cowardice', the piece argued.

A commentary in the Guangzhou-based New Express said even showmanship would be preferable to the unbridled corruption and unabashed privilege among Chinese officialdom.

In Economic Information Daily, a newspaper owned by the official news agency Xinhua, a column said that what Locke represents is, in fact, his country's system of government and its rules, and 'this system that can offer more valuable lessons to the Chinese officials'.

The article was reposted by the website of the official People's Daily in its special News Channel for the Communist Party.

US commentators also weighed in on the debate over Locke.

A blog post on the Council for Foreign Relations' website, signed by Elizabeth Economy, head of its Asia Studies programme, said:

'The post of US ambassador to China has long been filled by some of America's most talented diplomats and/or closest presidential confidants. It is a sign of respect to China that this is the case.

'If the Chinese government would rather the US not continue this tradition, it should let Washington know. We have plenty of sub-par politicians, political hacks, and indicted officials we can send their way.'


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