China Welcomes Home the New U.S. Envoy

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China is a country where grand gestures play well. So when U.S. President Barack Obama appointed Republican pooh-bah Jon Huntsman Jr. as the American Ambassador to China back in 2009, Beijing was pleased to welcome such an august envoy to its shores. The excitement has since died down, particularly in recent days after Huntsman was caught visiting a Beijing shopping district that had been designated by online activists as a protest spot—and later issued a forceful statement condemning attacks on foreign journalists at the site by Chinese security forces.

Now that Huntsman is leaving China this spring, possibly to explore a 2012 Republican presidential bid against his current boss Obama, speculation was rife in Beijing as to who could top such a high-profile envoy. By appointing Gary Locke, the Chinese-American Commerce Secretary, as the new Ambassador to China, Obama appears to have succeeded in the one-upsmanship game. There are two reasons why Locke will likely be warmly received by Beijing: his résumé and his race.

First, the career credentials. As the current Secretary of Commerce, Locke surely understands the importance of the business angle to the Sino-American relationship. During his two terms as Governor of Washington, he helmed a state that was increasingly dependent on trade across the Pacific. Presumably Beijing leaders are anticipating that Locke’s trade background might mean that he’ll be a little less mouthy on those human-rights issues that have animated Huntsman of late. Given how U.S.-China ties have weakened in recent months because of various human-rights and geopolitical concerns, Beijing must also be hoping that Locke’s appointment will mean an American tilt toward the easier economic component of the relationship. (Economics present their own difficulties, of course, such as a persistent currency spat and a sense that American businesses are operating on an uneven playing field in China.)

Second, Locke’s Chinese heritage. A third-generation Chinese-American who neither speaks Mandarin nor has spent any significant time in the land of his ancestors, Locke will still be welcomed “home” by China. Unlike Asian countries such as Japan that tend to harbor suspicions of émigrés, China has a far more embracing attitude toward the Chinese diaspora scattered across the world. (It also helps that Locke’s wife has vague family ties to Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China.) The “you’re one of us” approach may mean that Locke will not be reflexively dismissed as some foreign imperialist intent on denigrating a rising China.

The flip side to the race card is that ethnically Chinese foreigners working in China are often held to a different standard than other outsiders. Take a look at foreign businessmen jailed in China for various infractions real and imagined—and a disproportionate number of them are ethnically Chinese. Even foreign journalists of Chinese heritage are sometimes lectured when reporting on politically sensitive issues, as if they’re somehow betraying their blood ties by uncovering Chinese government abuses.

Still, Locke’s appointment is a good thing for Sino-American ties, which despite a cordial summit between Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao earlier this year, have become increasingly strained. But no one, not even as careful and respected a politician as Locke, will be able to single-handedly unsnarl one of the 21st century’s most complicated bilateral relationships. Grand gestures, Obama is no doubt discovering, only get so far, even in China.