Since arriving in China as the new US Ambassador, Gary Locke has attracted more than the usual attention from Chinese citizens, netizens and commentators. He is the first Chinese-American to hold this position and his behavior - modest, respectful, frugal - has raised some provocative questions.
First, there was the "he buys his own coffee at Starbucks" thing. Apparently, when a picture of him doing this rather simple task circulated on the Chinese internet, it was used as a basis of criticism against Chinese bureaucrats, who have a reputation for flaunting their power and status and having underlings take care of their personal matters, like buying coffee.
It was also noted that Locke flies coach, not first class, which again creates a contrast with the image of high-level Chinese bureaucrats wasting public funds for their more luxurious arrangements. Indeed, an infamous Chinese TV host took a pot shot at Locke for just this practice, asking him: "I hear you flew here coach. Is that a reminder that US owes China money?" But this seemed to backfire, as Locke patiently explained that he was simply abiding by the rules that apply to all US government personnel of his rank.
So Chinese-American Locke would seem to be embodying virtues of frugality and propriety that, in a different era, might have been associated with Confucian scholar-bureaucrats. But in contemporary China, Locke's apparent conformity with old-fashioned Chinese virtues is virtually nonsensical. Or, as one commentator put it:
“...the ambassador looks Chinese, but his behavior is completely un-Chinese.”
His behavior is "un-Chinese" because it comes closer to something China was in the past than what China is in the present.
The discomfort with Locke is not simply cultural, however, but also political. An editorial in the Global Times tries to take him down a peg:
It is true that some Chinese officials like to have many attendants crowding round them, which gives some commentators the chance to compare them unfavorably to people such as Locke.
It is unbelievable that Locke's casual stroll through hutongs with his family could win so much praise. The fact is, innumerable high officials, whether in the US or in China, would enjoy the same activity.
Can't have a US Ambassador upstaging CCP officials. But it gets better (or worse...). A Gunagming Daily editorial goes whole neo-colonialist hog:
“His Chinese-American identity means that he’s capable of attracting the attention and public support of Chinese people around the world, capable of developing an affinity with regular people in China. Who’s to say that isn’t the intention of the U.S., to use a Chinese to control the Chinese and incite political chaos in China?”
I imagine that Party propaganda people will not pursue this line, however. It might alienate Overseas Chinese in all sorts of places.
So we have some interesting ethnic-cultural politics playing out with the new Chinese-American Ambassador to China. It seems to matter that he "looks Chinese." And I think one of the ways it matters is that, in his low-key and simple style, his behavior looks more like what we would expect from a proper Confucian official, especially when compared to the images of corrupt and extravagant cadres that circulate so widely in China these days. Locke behaves in a way that many Chinese people want their rulers to behave. And that is a bit uncomfortable for the Party.
There's also another possibility. Maybe it's a Daoist dynamic. In acting humbly, Locke is demonstrating how contemporary China diverges from Dao, as suggested in passage 75 of the Daodejing:
The people are starving, and it's only because you leaders feast on taxes that they're starving.
The people are impossible to rule, and it's only because you leaders are master of extenuation that they're impossible to rule.
The people take death lightly, and it's only because you leaders crave life's lavish pleasures that they take death lightly,
they who act without to concern for life: it's a wisdom far beyond treasuring life.
In acting without concern for the status and power of his political position and life, Locke has found a way to move beyond mere treasuring life. He's getting closer to Dao...
So, which is it: Gary Locke, Confucian Gentleman; or Gary Locke, Daoist Sage?