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Ambassador nominee raises strong emotions in China

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has received positive receptions during visits, but vitriol flows on the Internet, where he is called a 'traitor' and is criticized for not speaking Mandarin Chinese.

March 10, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke spoke during a visit to China last year.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke spoke during a visit to China last year. (Jason Lee / Reuters )

Reporting from Beijing — — The prospect of a Chinese American becoming the American ambassador to China is rousing strong emotions in Beijing, revealing a thicket of conflicting feelings about race, national identity and patriotism.

Much of the reaction to President Obama's nominee, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose grandfather went to the U.S. from southern China more than a century ago, has been positive. Locke is a former governor of his home state of Washington who has made frequent trips to China, often attracting enthusiastic crowds.

The state-run Global Times on Wednesday quoted an analyst saying Locke would understand the Chinese way of dealing with issues, including "the subtleness that can be difficult to explain in words."

But a deep antagonism is evident in a profusion of less-than-diplomatic commentary on the Internet, a venue where Chinese feel free to vent.

"A fake foreign devil who cannot even speak Chinese," wrote one anonymous contributor to an Internet forum on public affairs.

"I don't like this guy who has forgotten his ancestors," wrote someone in Dalian on a popular news site, and someone in Sichuan piped in, "If he wanted to be Chinese, he wouldn't live in America."

Some Chinese call the 61-year-old Commerce secretary a "traitor" and resort to ethnic slurs to disparage his being born and raised in the United States.

The hostility is no surprise to Chinese Americans who live or work in China and are alternately embraced as long-lost relatives or scorned for deserting the motherland. They often are not recognized as foreigners and have difficulty getting into diplomatic compounds where many expatriates reside.

A joke already floating among the Chinese Americans in China is that Locke had better carry his passport.

"People are always asking me, 'Where are you from? Why do you look like us? Why can't you speak our mother tongue better?'" said Brooklyn-born Lillian Chou, a chef and food critic who lives in Beijing.

Locke's family spoke Taishanese, a dialect of Cantonese, which is largely incomprehensible in Beijing. His name is an anglicized version of "Lok." Locke's wife has family ties to the late revolutionary hero Sun Yat-sen.

Locke does not speak Mandarin Chinese, unlike the current ambassador, Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor who was a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.

But Huntsman, who is reportedly exploring a run for president, angered the Chinese government by appearing Feb. 20 on a pedestrian mall in Beijing where dissidents had called for pro-democracy protests. The U.S. Embassy said he happened to walk by with his family.

"To pick Gary Locke is a way for Obama to make amends," said Zhou Shijian, a senior fellow at the Center for U.S.-China relations at Qinghua University. "He looks Chinese, but he is American and will represent the American government's interests."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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