Backpack-wearing ambassador causes a stir in China


Zhaohui Tang/AP

Photographs of candidates and elected officials standing in line for fried foods at county fairs are a dime a dozen in the United States. But a picture of the new U.S. ambassador to China, former Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, wearing a backpack and buying his own coffee has gone viral in the Chinese blogosphere.

The photo, snapped by Chinese-American businessman ZhaoHui Tang on his iPhone at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, generated 40,000 re-posts and thousands of comments after he uploaded it to a Chinese social-media website. Tang, the chief executive of an Internet advertising firm, just thought it was cool to run into the ambassador, he told the Associated Press. Chinese commentators, however, were shocked to see a high-ranking official performing such mundane tasks.

The Chinese state-run Global Times called the strong reaction "a typical case of cross-cultural misunderstanding." Chinese citizens aren't used to seeing diplomats without tight security, carrying their own bags, and buying their own food. Unlike Chinese officials, Locke "has to keep a low profile to hold onto his official career," the Times said. "These low-profile behaviors are guaranteed by a rather high-profile official culture and system."

Locke, who was en route to China when his picture was taken, also caused a stir upon landing. The English-language, Beijing-based China Daily called his arrival a "scene so unusual it almost defied belief." Why? Because he and his family opted to use a car that was originally intended for staff.

"How could someone who holds the rank of an ambassador to a big country not have someone to carry his luggage, and not use a chauffeured limousine[?]" the author, a deputy editor of the U.S. edition of the newspaper, asked.

While the photo has turned the ambassador into something of a folk hero in a country where officials are routinely criticized for being lazy or arrogant, some Chinese commentators reminded the American's enthused supporters that Locke represents China's largest debtor -- one that recently lost its top credit rating, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Locke is in China as Vice President Joe Biden arrived for a visit. Locke formally began his posting as ambassador on Tuesday after presenting his credentials to President Hu Jintao.

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