- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Chinese are waving goodbye to the frustratingly normal U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, who announced on Nov. 20 that he will be leaving his post in early 2014. Over 300,000 netizens discussed Locke’s resignation on Sina Weibo, the Twitter-like platform where thousands had lauded Locke’s frugality and common touch since his term began in Aug. 2011 — when a Chinese tech entrepreneur spotted Locke carrying his own backpack and purchasing his own coffee at a Starbucks in the Seattle airport en route to assuming his new post.
The contrast between Locke, who frequently chose to fly economy, and China’s often coddled and flashy officials, rankled some citizens, not to mention cadres. The consensus among China’s chattering class: The bureaucracy will be happy to see Locke go. A lawyer named Ding Laifeng wrote that Locke’s "crimes" in China included "impacting the honorable image of Chinese officials." Businessman Du Zhifu remarked that, set among Chinese officials, Locke was like "a pearl in a pile of trash," and that his presence made China’s bureaucrats — whom Du called "boozing gluttons" — look even worse.
Unsurprisingly, China’s state-run media were stingy with praise as they bid Locke fairwell. The Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times published a pseudonymously signed op-ed claiming that Locke and the U.S. embassy had "caused some embarrassment" for China over the past two years. The op-ed referenced two sensitive incidents in which Locke played a major role: successfully negotiating Chongqing police boss Wang Lijun’s safe exit from the U.S. consulate in Chengdu after Wang attempted to defect in Feb. 2012, and helping rights activist Chen Guangcheng leave China for the United States in May 2012. "Goodbye Gary Locke," the title reads, and then adds, somewhat condescendingly, "our old controversies are water under the bridge." The first Chinese-American ambassador to China, Locke always tried to convey that his loyalties were with the United States. "Just because he is the same color as you," the author of another Nov. 21 Global Times op-ed cautions Chinese readers, "doesn’t mean he will treat you well."
Locke’s exit may relieve some Communist functionaries, but his departure is almost certainly not a result of their dissatisfaction. Locke himself told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to return to Seattle so that his three children could finish their education in one place. He denied that the notoriously polluted air in Beijing, which the U.S. embassy monitored more assiduously during Locke’s tenure, had anything to do with his decision. Hundreds of Weibo users were incredulous, writing confidently that Locke had "returned home to cleanse the lungs."
Others were inclined to just take him at face value. "You can tell he’s a man who loves his family," wrote one Weibo user. "There’s no need to read too much into this."