Ambassador Locke Picks Up His Own Coffee, Gains 'Hero' Status Among Chinese

Originally published on August 17, 2011 9:40 pm

Some pictures of the brand new U.S. ambassador to China are causing quite a stir. There's no scandal, instead the pictures have the Chinese reconsidering how their own public servants should act.

And it's all because of a coffee break.

We'll explain: Someone took a picture of Ambassador Gary Locke buying his own coffee at Starbucks in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. And, then, later pictures showed Locke and his family arriving at a Chinese airport carrying their own bags.

Many Chinese were incredulous.

"I think people look at him like a hero this time," Chen Weihua told All Things Considered's Melissa Block. Weihua is a columnist for China Daily, the country's national English-language newspaper, and he joked that to many Chinese Locke looked like a "migrant worker."

They were astonished. Weihua explained why in a recent column. He wrote:

To many Americans, there was probably nothing unusual about this. But to most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief.

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. In China even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.

Watching this episode, many Chinese people might start to wonder if the people at the US embassy in Beijing in charge of arranging Locke's reception would keep their jobs.

But as silly as it may sound, the episode touched a nerve said Weihua and has led to some introspection.

"This is really the new image of what public servants should be," said Weihua. "Right now in China there is a big debate about the spending of government officials. The public called for more transparency of the spending by government."

And that a top ambassador from the United States buys his own coffee and carries his own bags puts pressure on Chinese officials to be more transparent or in the least to be more humble.

More of Melissa's conversation with Weihua will air on today's All Things Considered. Tune in to your local NPR member station or we'll post the as-aired version of the interview here later on tonight.

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Those words are from Chen Weihua. He's deputy editor of the China Daily's U.S. edition. And he joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

CHEN WEIHUA: Thank you.

BLOCK: And I'm wondering, what do you think it is about this photo that has so resonated with the Chinese people, it's drawn all of this reaction?

WEIHUA: Yeah, because the photo looks so unreal, I mean, to most Chinese. In the Chinese government official culture, someone as senior as Gary Locke, I mean who was once the governor of the state of Washington, who was a former secretary of commerce - very high up there - people at this level would never do this themselves; buying coffee, carrying a backpack. They wouldn't even get near the Starbucks, you know, there was always someone who would've carried coffees to them.


BLOCK: So do you think - the idea from the comments that you've read online, is the idea maybe we should have, as you say in your piece in China Daily, our own leaders should take a page from this? Maybe they should do a little bit more of their own coffee buying.

WEIHUA: You know, why American officials act like this and the Chinese officials - I mean, I'm not talking about Chinese ministers. I mean, talking with the local officials

BLOCK: Yeah, you write in your piece that even a township chief would have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bags.

WEIHUA: Yes. Really not that high, I mean but they always behave very pompously. This is a kind of a status thing about you should never do this sort of a menial, low-level job yourself - you always leave it to your secretary.

BLOCK: Exactly. I mean, actually he - one of my colleagues interviewed him when he was the Commerce secretary. And he said, basically, what's your hobby. He said he likes to fix things himself, like a plumbing, you know, these things.

WEIHUA: I mean a lot of officials - I'm talking about some even the corporate executive - they would never say this. They always say: Hey, I like play golf, maybe polo. I mean, so like it looks like you are, you know, high-level people - you know how to appreciate good life. You know?


WEIHUA: So this is the difference, I mean people see.

BLOCK: Chen Weihua, thanks for much for talking with us.

WEIHUA: Thank you.

BLOCK: Chen Weihua is deputy editor of the China Daily U.S. Edition. He spoke with us from New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.