Before I arrived in Beijing in November, I had never heard of Gary Locke. However, in the immediate days following my arrival, I started hearing about him constantly! This was due to the profound impact he’s had upon the Chinese psyche during his relatively short tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to China.
Chinese fascination with Ambassador Locke intensified in August, when he was candidly photographed using a coupon to pay for coffee at Starbucks. What’s more is that he was carrying his own backpack, preparing to take an economy flight at the Seattle Airport, and had his young daughter in tow.
While Locke’s behavior seemed remarkably ordinary to me, it was exactly this trait that drew attention. As a high-ranking government official, Locke’s ordinariness provided a stark contrast for a nation that is unaccustomed to seeing such humble behavior in its own officials. This contrast was all the more resonant, given Locke’s ethnicity as a Chinese-American. Locke gained instantaneous celebrity status after this photograph was forwarded around the popular Chinese microblogging site Weibo.
Locke’s humility was again on display when he recently traveled to his ancestral village in Southern China. This was Locke’s third journey back to his ancestral village of Jilong in the province of Guangdong, and his first as Ambassador. However, this trip back was not to revel in the success of his new appointment. It was to honor Jimmy Locke, the Ambassador’s father who passed away in January.
True to his reputation, Locke was every bit the ‘everyday’ man. On his journey to Jilong, Locke stopped at a nondescript vendor to sample their sesame paste, then visited a local kindergarten to hang out with the kids. He even admitted to his regret at not being able to speak Chinese when requested so by the media. Upon arriving in Jilong, Locke placed a photo of his late father in the family shrine before observing Chinese tradition of kowtowing to the grave, lighting fireworks and incense, and gave offerings.
What strikes me the most about this visit is that although Locke’s family left rural China two generations earlier, the sense of humility and modesty that accompanies the Chinese rural way of life doesn’t seem to have been forgotten. Such traits are particularly evident in Locke’s demeanor and personality which have endeared him to the Chinese public. So, in a sense, the very qualities that the Chinese public find most endearing about Gary Locke, they are partially responsible for instilling.
As the U.S. Ambassador to China, Locke’s ordinariness has made him extraordinary. This coupled with his heritage, history and upbringing have allowed him to be accepted in a way that few others in his posting ever have. This places Locke in a unique position to help forge a new understanding within the US-China relationship given his detailed insights into both cultures. Although I am due to leave Beijing in the upcoming weeks, I’m sure that given what I have already learned about Locke and his unique position within the US-China relationship, I’ll continue to hear about him for a long time yet!
Photos courtesy of NPR and Washington Post.