Austerity backlash: Gary Locke has too much integrity

If you’re already familiar with The Locke Affair,* you can skip down to this quote I dug up from Richard McGregor’s The Party about Wang Xiaofang’s Director of the Beijing Office (also known as The Chief of the Beijing Office Liaison and a couple other names).

With all the recent to-do about the Chinese media backlash against new U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke–he of buyer-of-own-coffee, carrier-of-own-luggage, wanderer-of-hutongs, rider-of-(gasp)-economy-class fame–most of the U.S. stories seem to direct reader’s ire at the easily manipulated Chinese news industry (Chinese media take aim at ‘showy’ U.S. ambassador”). Which is interesting when one thinks about who China is attacking here (besides Locke for being a show-off of course and for America for nefariously planting him here): that’s right, an easily manipulated Chinese news media. From notorious CCTV host Rui Chengang’s Weibo:

“His public behaviors, from using a backpack to buying coffee, from taking a van (instead of a car) to taking economy class, are all accurately received, photographed, spread and discussed. He knows how the media works because he used to run for governor.” (in Chinese)

And from the Global Times editorial, which along with the Guangming Daily editorial(were those really the only two sources of criticism?!) caused the firestorm:

Media that actively sensationalize Locke should show restraint. There are too many occasions and angles to criticize the corruption and bureaucracy in Chinese official circles. It is not suitable to overly praise a foreign ambassador, particularly when his task in China is rather complicated. Chinese media should be calm and rational when discussing the private lives of people like Locke.

But what’s actually at play here is more than just Gary Locke playing the media like a fiddle (or just being himself as the case may be) and the Chinese media/netizenry lapping it up, but also, like most things, about politics (which is hinted at in the Global Times editorial with the reference to Chinese corruption). CSM and others astutely pointed out that:

The attention Locke has garnered is freighted with political significance, says Mr. Yao. “None of the things written about him are really about him at all,” explains Yao. “They are just painting a picture to contrast with Chinese officials; it is all meant as ironic commentary.”

Indeed, this is a common tack, to criticize the ills of Chinese society by highlighting success elsewhere. And in fact, there’s even a recent precedent of this same exact story: an official full of integrity making his fellow colleagues look bad and the backlash against him–except in fiction. Here are some quotes from Richard McGregor’s fascinating book about the CCP, The Party, which has a brief passage on Wang Xiaofang’s bestselling 2007 novel, Director of the Beijing Office.

The belief that you cannot be successful without being corrupt is commonplace enough to have been the theme of a best-selling novel in 2007, called Director of the Beijing Representative Office. The book, part of a series about the Beijing-based lobbyist for an unnamed city government in north-eastern China, pits a clean official against a corrupt one. . . In Wang’s novel, the first official, Li Weimin, is an upright and principled cadre who cares deeply about the community he is serving. Parachuted into the municipal government, he bristles with integrity and makes sure his family members do not exploit his position for personal gain. Far from endearing himself to his colleagues, Li’s austere lifestyle infuriates them. Drivers and secretaries do not like working for him, colleagues feel embarrassed by his decision to live in an old residential building instead of moving into the gleaming new official compound where they are housed, rightly sending that he has made them look bad in front of ordinary people. And he spurns sumptuous government banquets, opting instead for a simple meal at his desk [BIDEN NOODLES!–ed], forcing his colleagues to follow suit. His behavior, the narrator says, makes him seem ‘an unreasonable man who has no sympathies for his colleagues.’ (pg 95)

The NYTimes had a pretty good rundown of the cultural issues at play in the development of Locke’s hero status and CFR has a quick summary of The Locke Affair.


*I am guaranteeing that something will happen during the next year and this’ll get coined [currently, only 28 hits on Google for it]–it’s just sounds too good not to be used. And of course, there will be the requisite movie starring Matt Damon as Locke, the first Asian American ambassador to the dictatorial empire of Shyna, who battles evil doers with impeccable integrity and an AK. There’ll also be a dramatic sequence in the middle where he buys a cup of coffee at the Starbucks in Pundong airport. The shop vendor hands him the coffee and Damon walks away without paying, casually tossing his backpack over his shoulder, his back muscles rippling, practically escaping from his tasteful (but not designer!) suit. He takes three steps, then slowly turns. “You know why I didn’t pay for this cup? [beat] Because freedom is priceless.” The puzzled shop vendor stares at Damon and then he is enlightened. He begins a slow clap as Damon strides out the sliding doors to board a private, single-engine Cessna.

As he takes off, the airport explodes below him. We see him grimace and sip from his coffee. “Too weak,” he says. “Shoulda made it myself.” THE END.

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