Gary Locke, Rock Star in China?

Gary Locke, Obama's Commerce Secretary turned ambassador to China, drew an unlikely "rock star" goo-fest on NPR's All Things Considered on Friday night. In China, the former governor of Washington state is now apparently an "internet sensation" with "runaway popularity," a "rock star" who's mobbed by crowds with outstretched hands, but is still "very down to earth," since "He carries his own backpack, travels in economy and buys coffee with discount vouchers."

NPR reporter Louisa Lim insisted to the audience at home that nominating an ethnic Chinese man to be ambassador to China was a very wise move on Obama's part, as was proven by Locke's third trip to his ancestral homeland in southern China:

LOUISA LIM: This is how Gary Locke kicked off his return to his ancestral home, with a video posted on China's version of Twitter. It's a nod to his status as an Internet sensation. He told reporters he's been taken aback by his runaway popularity.

LOCKE: It was completely unexpected and certainly not by design. In fact, I'm somewhat overwhelmed by all the microblogging that occurs here in China, or the use of smartphones and people who want to take pictures of myself and my family.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: One, two three...

LIM: That much was clear straight away. Press conference over, the reporters elbowed each other out of the way to have their pictures taken with Locke.

LOCKE: Oh, it's really good. It's nice and gritty. My mom used to make it fresh.

LIM: The trip to Guangdong province is about more than just business. One stop was a snack shop serving his favorite dessert: sesame paste. This, too, became a photo op as owner He Zhilian trembled with pride at the celebrity slurping her sesame soup.

HE ZHILIAN: (Through Translator) Even though he's an official, he's an ordinary person. He's very down to earth, so I'm extremely honored that he's come to my shop.

LIM: Ambassador Locke has shot to fame, not for his meetings with top Chinese officials, but for his ordinariness. He carries his own backpack, travels in economy and buys coffee with discount vouchers. Such low key behavior highlights the luxurious lifestyles of some Chinese officials, so much so that one party-controlled newspaper published an editorial on its website saying Locke's posting was a neocolonialist plot to strengthen pro-U.S. forces in China. He shrugged this off.

LOCKE: There's no way this was a U.S. government neocolonialist plot.

LIM: But being in the spotlight does have its advantages.

LOCKE: If anything, the added attention, greater visibility that I've been able to generate, if that can help open doors and help bridge and expose more Chinese to American values, American way of life, then that's great.

LIM: We've now stopped in Taishan, the closest town to Gary Locke's ancestral home and he's meeting here with Communist Party officials and the mayor. We're in this extraordinary hotel. I'm standing in this massive domed corridor with marble floors. It's kind of like Versailles in Guangdong.

Next stop, a kindergarten where crowds mob him, hands outstretched. This ambassador is a rock star here, despite his inability to speak Chinese. Zhao Jie is one of those out on the street waiting to see this hometown boy made good.

ZHAO JIE: (Through Translator) I've been following him on the Internet. I think for an ethnically Chinese person to become an American ambassador makes us all very proud.

Lim concluded: "The personal nature of this visit underlines Locke's roots and the personal is political. In this social media age, Locke's ethnicity means he has a chance to make an impact like few ambassadors ever have before. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Guangzhou."

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