Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the new U.S. ambassador to China, seems to be unnerving Chinese officials and propaganda authorities with his aw shucks, I'll-fix-it-myself way of doing things.
One has to wonder if Chinese political leaders and their news organizations have access to Google. A quick run through the mighty search engine could counter some presumptuous storytelling taking place these days.
Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, the new U.S. ambassador to China, seems to be unnerving Chinese officials and propaganda authorities with his aw-shucks-I’ll-fix-it-myself way of doing things.
A recent New York Times story, “Chinese, but Not Their Leaders, Flock to U.S. Envoy,” says some news organizations have said that Locke’s “man-of-the-people style is an act, an American plot to stir citizens’ resentment of their own leaders.”
A plot? Really? More likely, the Chinese cannot fathom a guy like Locke, who as governor really did climb a 60-foot scaffold in the state Capitol to change the light bulbs.
In the 1990s, Locke was dubbed in a Seattle Weekly piece as “The Man Who Mistook his Life for the Legislature,” in which his favorite free-time practice was described as “sweating over plumbing.”
This is where Google comes into play — as in, how about searching to learn more about Locke’s true persona?
The Guangming Daily, a Communist Party newspaper, said the appointment of Locke “reveals the despicable intention of the United States to use a Chinese to control the Chinese and incite political chaos in China.”
Excuse me, but the words “Gary Locke” and “incite” do not belong in the same sentence.
Locke is better known as a nerdy Mr. Fix-it type. When Locke was a state lawmaker living in the Seward Park area of Seattle, he was my state representative. Canvassing for support for re-election, he would knock on voters’ doors and break into long, wonkish diatribes about state tax policy, offering the occasional home-repair tip. Can I close the door now, please?
His idea of a hot weekend was to spend hours working on his roof and cleaning the garage.
Before he met his wife, Mona, Locke worked 9 bazillion hours for the Legislature, a supposedly part-time job.
Flash forward to 2011. Late-bloomer Locke, who served two terms as governor and two years as President Obama’s commerce secretary, posed for pictures and shook hands with people on a trip to his ancestral village of Jilong. Sounds Locke-ish. But speculation swirled that he must somehow be dissing Chinese leaders who are a bit more aloof and separate from the people.
“Two Chinese journalists covering Mr. Locke’s visit last week to Guangzhou and his ancestral village said propaganda officials had issued a directive not to ‘hype’ the trip,” wrote The New York Times. “That meant that they would write straightforward articles of about 1,000 Chinese characters and that their work would be kept off newspaper front pages.
” ‘They don’t like him,’ one reporter, who insisted on anonymity, said of the propaganda authorities. ‘They think he is too high-profile and he is embarrassing Chinese leaders.’ “
One can quibble with various policy decisions or budget calls he made as governor or legislator. But Locke is more geek than provocateur.
When Locke was first appointed — he is the first Chinese-American ambassador to China — there was an unspoken expectation he might see things the way the Chinese do.
But Locke, of course, is still the U.S. ambassador to China, an American diplomat trying to foster relations with America’s second-largest trading partner and advance American economic policies.
Roger Nyhus was Locke’s communications director when he was governor and remains an informal adviser. He traveled with Locke to China years ago and recalled: “He was treated as a celebrity, a native son who had done well.”
From the beginning, government officials and journalists were bent out of shape because Locke was photographed wearing a backpack and — gasp! — buying his own coffee.
But anyone who really knows Locke realizes he meant no international harm. It’s more likely that he is still adjusting to the pomp of his new job. The Chinese may not realize it yet, but Locke is most comfortable puttering around the house wearing jeans and a tool belt.
Joni Balter’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is email@example.com