Locke linked to firm's debt row with in-law
A business dispute may have taken some of the gloss off the reputation in China of US ambassador Gary Locke.
He became an online sensation in August when mainland microbloggers contrasted his modest lifestyle with that of spendthrift and arrogant mainland officials.
But with the media's attention on Locke last week as he was feted by well wishers in his family's hometown in Guangdong, a manufacturer of lighting in the eastern city of Ningbo sought to play up its lawsuit against a former partner - a company owned by Locke's brother-in-law - over an unpaid US$11 million debt.
The company, Geosun, used the popular Sina Weibo microblogging site to bring up its near 20-year trading history with US-based EML Technologies. The lawsuit was filed in 2009. Locke's name was repeatedly mentioned in the posts, as Geosun claimed that he twice visited the company with Wade Lee, his brother-in-law, in 2003 and 2008 - before he was ambassador - and spoke highly of the company during meetings with local government officials.
The US embassy in China was earlier quoted as saying the case was not related to Locke himself.
Trade between the two companies rose significantly after his visits, Geosun said on Sina Weibo. It provided a picture of Locke, Lee and Lee's father that was taken during their visit to Geosun in 2003.
The Chinese edition of the Global Times, a state-run newspaper known for its nationalism, ran a commentary yesterday calling for Chinese diplomats overseas to learn a lesson and exercise caution by not showing favour to Chinese companies with which they are personally connected.
The commentary was written by Mei Xinyu, a researcher with the Ministry of Commerce's Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Co-operation.
He said the case became politically interesting because 'EML took full advantage of Locke's name'.
'People in both China and the United States are likely to think that Gary Locke has failed to draw a clear line between his identity as a US government official and the business interests of himself and his family members,' Mei wrote.
Internet users appeared split on the dispute. While some criticised Locke, saying he was just as corrupt as some Chinese officials, others said the case had nothing to do with him.
Shi Yinhong, director of the research centre for US studies at Renmin University of China, said: 'Ambassador to China is a very important position, and there are laws to abide by if Locke is truly found to be involved [in business interests].'