Toting his own backpack. Flying coach. Buying coffee with a coupon.
Just who does Gary Locke think he is?
The United States ambassador to China was recently pilloried in Chinese newspaper editorials for his part in the saga of Chen Guangcheng, a blind dissident who holed up in the U.S. Embassy after escaping house arrest.
But Locke's everyman actions have drawn almost as much attention as his diplomacy.
His star turn began from the moment he walked out of the Beijing airport in August carrying his own bags and got into an ordinary vehicle. “Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke,” one column in the China Daily mused, drawing an unflattering comparison with chauffeured Chinese officials, whose fancy cars have been disparaged as "corruption on wheels."
As Chinese media have racked up more examples of Gary Locke being an ordinary Joe, some Chinese outlets have suggested that Locke is playing up his humble image to score political points.
When the first flurry of attention surrounded Locke, one Communist daily warned readers not to be seduced by his “facade.” Last month, when the American ambassador stayed at a hotel with four stars -- not five -- the Global Times reported that “some suspect it was another publicity stunt.” After the Chen affair exploded into headlines, the Beijing Daily excoriated Locke for his "little tricks" during the incident.
The official outrage over Locke has been mocked by some Chinese Internet users: A digitally altered image of Locke being shamed, Cultural Revolution-style, with a placard around his neck that lists “crimes” such as “buying coffee with discount coupons,” surfaced on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.
What makes the "little tricks" of Locke so interesting is that Chinese people have seized on his actions to reflect on their own political culture, editor David Bandurski wrote on the China Media Project website, which has been closely following the kerfuffle over the ambassador.
China "has arguably deepened the sense of reflective value by obsessing on Locke’s actions, putting itself in the awkward position of fussing about minutia like backpacks and cups of coffee," Bandurski wrote.
Locke, an American of Chinese descent, has hinted at the tendency to see him as a reflection of China, telling the People's Daily that "in some ways, it is good that I don't speak Mandarin" because people might otherwise say "because I have a Chinese face, I should be really representing the views of China." When he was first chosen, some Chinese tarred him as a "traitor" because of his roots.
His "Chinese face" is key to the fascination with the U.S. envoy, Chinese social commentator Yao Bo told the Christian Science Monitor when Locke first started grabbing attention last year. "The ambassador looks Chinese, but his behavior is completely un-Chinese,” Yao Bo said.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke during the U.S.-China People-to-People Exchange at the National Museum in Beijing on May 4, 2012. Credit: Mark Ralston / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images