Yes, that Gary Locke. The low-key, two-term Washington state governor and former Obama administration commerce secretary who — with his wife, Mona Locke, and their three children — has become in just three months something of a media and Internet star in China as the first U.S. ambassador of Chinese ancestry.
Locke’s popularity here among ordinary Chinese, as expressed by random comments in interviews and posts on popular microblogging sites called weibo, has as much to do with his unassuming nature — his ordinariness — as his Chinese looks and background. Even before he arrived, Locke was photographed with his daughter at the Seattle airport, sporting a backpack and trying to pay for his coffee with a coupon.
Since then, Locke “sightings” have included the ambassador flying in economy class, buying ice cream with his daughter in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing, and waiting in line with his family alongside tourists for a seat on a cable car descending from the Great Wall.
The reason for the fascination, many here posit, is that when Chinese look at this backpack-toting American envoy with a Chinese face, they see everything their own leaders are not — leaving authorities struggling for how best to respond to his increasingly evident popularity.
Ask about Locke’s maiden speech as ambassador to the American Chamber of Commerce, in which he challenged China to reform its foreign investment policies and protect intellectual property, and you might get blank stares. But almost everyone knows about the backpack, the Starbucks coupon, the cattle-class airline seat.
“I was really impressed by Gary Locke’s simplicity,” said Liu Changge, a 21-year-old Beijing parking lot security guard wearing an oversize green uniform. “My first impression of him is the picture circulating online of he, his wife and their children in the airport. Each of them carried big pieces of luggage. It’s unimaginable for a high Chinese official to move abroad like that.”
Mona Locke also has been in the news, with many netizens re-tweeting the fact that her grandmother Lan Ni was the second wife of the son of China’s revolutionary hero, Sun Yat-sen. “I don’t think she has really made her presence felt yet,” said Hong Huang, a fashion magazine publisher.
“It was completely unexpected, and not by design,” Gary Locke told reporters in Guangzhou who accompanied him on a trip — his first as ambassador, his third overall — to his ancestral village of Taishan. “I’m somewhat overwhelmed by the microblogging that takes place in China, and the smartphones and all the people that want to take pictures of myself and my family.”
“It shocked us even before he flew to Beijing, someone snapped his picture at Starbucks,” said Michael Anti, a journalist and blogger in Beijing. The shock, Anti said, was that many Chinese believed that Locke, as the top U.S. diplomat in China, “should be like Chinese officials — he shouldn’t use coupons, and he should have bodyguards.”