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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