SHANGHAI – The state-owned China News Service last week bid farewell to Gary Locke, the ethnically Chinese, outgoing U.S. ambassador, with a pseudonymous news item referring to him as a “yellow-skinned white-hearted banana man.”
What, perchance, could ignite a Chinese-language newspaper to use what non- Chinese would ordinarily regard as a racial slur? As outlined by this 64-year-old, Communist Party-controlled, globally oriented CNS, he had favored U.S. interests over Chinese ones. “Mr. Ambassador, what if your ancestors knew of your performance?” The news wire asked. “If they’d known, they would have thrown you out of the house.”
To American ears, at least, this might sound naive, if not a little mad. To many if not most Chinese, it sounds much the same, and in the days since the news item first ran, it’s been roundly ridiculed, criticized and outright derided on Chinese social media, with one well-known user of Sina Weibo referring to it as the “single worst article I’ve ever seen.”
Nonetheless, it’s worth nothing that CNS isn’t writing from the fringe, entirely. From the moment that Locke was announced as the U.S. ambassador in 2011, he’s been the subject of considerable, racially oriented curiosity. This is predictable: In China, successful “overseas” Chinese — anyone from an athlete such as Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin to an author such as Tiger Mother defender Amy Chua — generates pride, media coverage and an irresistible tendency to take credit. (Lin has been called the “Pride of Zhejiang,” referring to his grandmother’s ancestral province in China — though he’s a Taiwanese American.)
It’s difficult to say how many Chinese felt that Locke would be predisposed to favor their interests, but it’s safe to assume that at least a few people of influence were modestly optimistic — including the editors of the highly independent Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper who on August 15, 2011, wrote:
Chinese people hope to make real friends who really want to help us. Locke has a natural cultural advantage in the problem of sharing values between China and the U.S. The two countries should take this opportunity.
Of course, even these modest expectations were bound to be disappointed, as Locke did precisely what he was supposed to do: promote American interests in China. Nonetheless, he didn’t disappoint everyone. His modest bearing — at least compared to the extravagant lifestyles of Chinese officials — endeared him to China’s online masses early in his tenure.
For example, he was famously captured buying his own coffee at a Seattle airport, something that no self-respecting Chinese bureaucrat would ever be caught doing. The contrast became an Internet sensation in China that embarrassed officials nationwide and no doubt generated intense enmity for the American ambassador who — theoretically — was supposed to understand Chinese sensitivities better than his predecessors.
It’s surely the case that CNS has not been alone among Chinese in thinking that Locke is a traitor to his race. But even among the government officials who might feel that they’re most justified in believing so, few if any would dare to make the claim in a public forum, for fear of being ridiculed as low-rent race-baiters.
Unfortunately China’s second-largest news wire — and the Communist Party propaganda officials who manage its content — lack their sense of shame.
Adam Minter, a regular contributor to Bloomberg View, based in Shanghai, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamMinter.