Former US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has been creating a buzz in China since he arrived last month to take up his new role as US Ambassador. He is the first Chinese-American ever to fill that position, and curiosity about him is running high.
Last month, a Chinese tourist posted online a photo he took of Locke sporting a small backpack and buying his own coffee at the Seattle airport Starbucks. That photo launched endless online comments in China — surprise, admiration, because Chinese officials would have legions of flunkies to do this kind of thing for them, jokes that America must really be short of money if the US Ambassador has to fend for himself.
On Friday, Locke gave his first speech as ambassador, at Beijing's Foreign Studies University, and he threw the joke back at his student audience.
"I know that there are very high expectations for my tenure as US ambassador to China," Locke said. "After all, I am the first Chinese-American to hold this post. And I do have a proven record – as a governor, as a commerce secretary, and as a person who has mastered the art of buying his own coffee, wearing a backpack and carrying my own luggage."
That prompted some laughter. It may make Locke seem to Chinese like a typical American, but he recalled how just two generations earlier his grandfather came to America from a village in southern China.
"He arrived in Olympia, Washington, to work as a houseboy in exchange for English lessons," Locke said.
A century later, Locke was elected governor of the state of Washington, becoming the first Asian-American governor. "I moved into the Governor's mansion, just one mile from the house where my grandfather washed dishes and swept floors. We joked that it took my family 100 years to travel that one mile."
What made that possible, he said, was American openness.
"The America I was raised in was open to new ideas, where I was allowed to think what I wanted to think and say what I wanted to say — except to my parents, of course — to join organizations that could question or challenge American government policy."
Locke stressed that that openness breeds creativity and innovation, and that all of these things are as good for China as for anywhere else.
It's usually around this point in a US official's speech at a Chinese university when the audience starts to get a little defensive. But not so much this time.
One student named Feng Jie stood up to say, "I'm very honored to ask the first question. And my question is what made you decide to give your first speech as US ambassador at this university?"
There were more pointed questions, about why US unemployment is so high, about how Locke feels about China's Internet censorship, about whether a waning of Washington's War on Terror would mean a new era of tougher US-China competition for influence in Asia. Locke responded that there's another way to think about the relationship.
"President Obama and I reject the notion that China and the United States are engaged in a zero-sum competition, where one side must fall for the other to rise. We can and must achieve security and prosperity together," he said.
Locke can't expect to have an entirely smooth tenure ahead. There are tensions related to China's growing military prowess, cyber-espionage, trade issues and the basic friction of a rising power challenging an established one. Locke has also gotten flak in China for not speaking much Chinese.
But at least, on this day, his audience went easy on him. An accounting major named "Elvis," Chinese name Zhang Wen Feng, almost gushed about the new US ambassador.
"I really feel proud. He has the blood with us. He's Chinese-American and I feel proud of this."
A business major named Jacob — Liu Jia Xi — said Locke just may be the perfect man for the moment.
"As a Chinese-American, he bears more hope from the Chinese people, and we have reason to believe that he, as a person, will do good to the relationship between China and the US."
That's a heavy burden of expectations. But as Locke joked in his speech, he's already proven he can carry a load.