A Racist Farewell to Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke

A ChinaFile Conversation

Reacting to departing U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke’s February 27 farewell news conference in Beijing, the state-run China News Service published a critique by Wang Ping that called Ambassador Locke a “banana.”

Kaiser Kuo:

Banana or Twinkie for “white-on-the-inside” East Asian Americans, Oreo for African-Americans, coconut for South Asian-Americans, apple for Native Americans—these epithets are all products of the simplistic, groundless belief that one's “race” should correspond to a (rarely defined) set of behavioral norms, to a locus of identity and loyalty. As an ethnic Chinese who was born and raised in the States, “banana” (and later “Twinkie”) was a term I heard a lot, sometimes directed my way, sometimes said in reference to another American of East Asian extraction who wasn’t “Chinese” (or Japanese, or Korean, or Vietnamese) enough. These were also terms I frequently heard and still occasionally hear East Asian-Americans call themselves, often with distinct pride rather than self-deprecation. Whether it’s insulting depends very much on the context, and who’s on the receiving end.

In the context of this regrettable editorial, which was as subtle as a barking doberman, “banana man” was meant with unmistakable malice—that Locke is a “race traitor” who lacks the political loyalty to the Chinese nation that his blood should somehow confer. This is of course naive nonsense, and the patent ridiculousness of that phrase should have been obvious even to a writer totally unfamiliar with the complexities of the American discourse on race. But while there will be many Chinese—indeed, already have been many—who will object to the editorial’s broadsides against Ambassador Locke, I suspect they’ll focus much more on the irony that state media would call out Gary Locke for living well but projecting everyman simplicity rather than on the “banana” comment, as many American commentators have. The expectation that anyone with a Chinese phenotype will have a “Chinese heart” to match, even at multiple generations of remove, is widespread in Chinese society. The plasticity of identity in multiethnic societies—that what you “owe” the race or the old country as, say, an American is entirely up to you—is still a fairly alien concept for most Chinese. We see this at work in the way Chinese law enforcement treats naturalized Chinese with U.S., Canadian, or Australian citizenship. It reminds us of the truth in what the late Lucian Pye said about China’s fundamentally civilizational notion of itself.

In Ambassador Locke’s case, you’d think that the fact that he was in Beijing as the top representative of the U.S. government would dispel any expectation that his loyalties and identity should be to anywhere but Washington (the state or D.C.). Yet I would wager that even among his ardent admirers in China—the people who responded most positively to his backpack-toting, Starbucks buying, down-to-earth style—part of that admiration grew out of a sense that he was “one of us:” a Chinese person. Ambassador Locke reinforced this, deliberately or otherwise, with each visit to his ancestral home in Taishan, Guangdong. It was certainly useful to play to it, and it often worked. There was of course always that other edge to his Chineseness. In any case, to have expected color-blindness toward Ambassador Locke in China would be even more naive than to have expected it in the U.S. with President Obama.

Americans are certainly not immune to the kind of thinking that gives rise to “race traitor” accusations. It’s often there in the subtext when expatriates attack Mark Rowswell, the (white) Canadian with impeccable spoken Chinese who has for many years played the character Dashan on Chinese television. It’s implicit, alongside more reasonable objections, in criticism of white reporters who go on air for CCTV News. And it’s even there in the derision many feel for those who call themselves “eggs”—white people who’ve convinced themselves that they’re really "culturally Asian,” with a “yolk” consisting (their detractors might say) of an obsessive familiarity with Manga or anime, martial arts films, Eastern religion, TCM—and of course “yellow fever,” that creepy fetishistic attraction to East Asian women. Sure, “race traitor” is not being flung openly in The Globe and Mail or The New York Times. But it would hardly surprise me were subtler accusations of race treason to pop up on Fox.


Calling an Asian-American person a banana means, of course, that he is yellow on the outside, but white at the core. The banana critique suggests something interesting about the Chinese reaction to Gary Locke. Initially many thought that he might be easier to deal with than his predecessors because he was “one of us.” Disappointment set in when—surprise, surprise—Ambassador Locke stood firm in representing U.S. interests.

Ironically, one of the challenges Asian-Americans face in the U.S. is the sense that we are not American enough. One of America’s great shames was the mass incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.  In recent decades, Asian-Americans have continued to face the suspicion that they are somehow not fully American.  In 1982, Vincent Chin, an immigrant of Chinese descent, was beaten to death in Detroit by men who blamed him for autoworker jobs lost to Japanese competition. In 1999, Dr. Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen who had lived in the U.S. for more than 30 years, was wrongfully accused of stealing secrets for China.

Despite these injustices, the American ability to welcome and be shaped by the talents of immigrants from around the globe has always been one of its greatest strengths. That Ambassador Locke, a U.S. citizen of Chinese descent, could become the Governor of Washington State, a Secretary of Commerce, and a U.S. Ambassador is a testament to this.

The outdated notion of ethnicity reflected in the China News Service banana comment is part of a nationalist strand in the PRC polity that hopefully is a minority view.  And if being a banana means that Ambassador Locke is American to the core, I suspect that he might not mind the “insult” too much.

Wang Ping’s scurrilous and infantile personal attack on Gary Locke—well known for his personal integrity—visits new global shame on China’s state-owned media.

Wang’s title, “Farewell,” etc., is an attempt to gain traction by the use of a famous essay by Mao Zedong on the departure from China of Ambassador John Leighton Stuart in the  run up to the founding of the P.R.C. This cheap publicity trick, however, only adds to the shame, because of the contrast between the two essays.

(1) Mao’s essay (of which I was one of the translators) carefully avoids any disrespect for Ambassador Stuart, instead going out of its way to cite Stuart's record as a Japanese prisoner in WWII. Wang launches a personal attack on Ambassador Locke, using the political language of the Chinese gutter.

(2) Mao wrote during a bitter civil war, in which the U.S.A. was providing major military (arms), financial, and political support to his enemy, Chiang Kai-Shek. His scathing critique of Washington’s policy came naturally, under the circumstances. The state-owned, tightly-controlled “China News Service,” on the other hand, published this filth at a time when leaders of both China and the United States have openly declared their commitment to forging a “new type of relationship” between these two great powers.

How, then, are foreign readers to view this attack on Ambassador Locke? If the defense argument should be that “China News Service does not censor comment,” that would cause knowledgable observers to, as the Chinese saying goes, “Laugh their teeth out.” But any other defense would reveal a disturbing ambiguity in China's policy towards the United States.

I am far from happy with America’s foreign policy, including its China Policy. But that’s not the point here. The point is—how do we explain a Chinese media that indulges in such disreputable attacks, and in the hate campaign against all Japanese, when the state it represents is supposed to believe in internationalism, not in ultra-nationalism?

To be sure, the editorial is scurrilous, racist, and incoherent (have the skies really gone blue in Beijing?), but its main concern seems to be with Locke’s effective projection of American “soft power.” This is a battlefront that increasingly obsesses the Chinese leaders, as seen in their denunciations of “universal values” and the enumeration of “seven themes that cannot be discussed,” among them constitutionalism, civil society, freedom of speech, and independent media. To the leaders, these themes are not matters of intellectual debate. They are positions on a political battlefield, where the Party is in a weak position because of the widespread popularity of these ideas in China and the obvious inability of the Chinese regime to fulfill them.

Just as the Chinese government sees the current events in Ukraine as yet another “color revolution” cynically engineered by the West to expand its strategic footprint, so too, Gary Locke carrying his bags is seen as a political act aimed at humiliating the Chinese leadership and weakening its hold on power. If these games had been played by a white ambassador, they could have been seen as just another set of funny foreign customs. Sending an ethnic Chinese to conduct this kind of propaganda action must seem to show a special deviousness on the part of the schemers in Washington.

To me, the huge attention triggered by the article about Ambassador Gary Locke’s departure carried on the China News Service website is both warranted and unwarranted.

First, the unjustified part: The story, although on China News Service website, looks highly unlikely to be the work of its staff, let alone its editorial board. It looks more likely the creation of a blogger or freelancer, and an unsophisticated one.

The language used is simply too coarse from the standards and style of the China News Service I have observed over the years.

Second, Western media tends to interpret any article on Chinese news media as the view of the organization, but that is often not true. For example, many believe my weekly newspaper column represents the views of the paper or even the Chinese government. That is totally untrue. It is always my personal view.

In this sense, there is no need to make a big fuss of such an article, an ordinary one likely by a blogger. There are literally hundreds, if not millions, of different views on every single issue in China these days, especially when you follow social media.

Personally, I disagree with a lot of what the article said. In its coverage of the debate, NPR quoted me on its All Things Considered years ago talking about Locke’s appearing at the airport, carrying his own backpack and buying his own coffee. I praised him for being such a big contrast to the ostentatious behavior of many Chinese officials. Even if Locke was putting on a show, which I don’t think he was, it’s was a good show.

I would also give Locke credit if he was the one who started the PM2.5 reading. My column last week was about how China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection should become more powerful and accountable in the face of such severe smog shrouding much of China. PM2.5 readings allow more Chinese to recognize the severity and urgency of China’s environmental and health challenge.

Dramatically cutting the visa time for Chinese tourists benefits both countries. It has enabled more Chinese to visit the U.S. to open their eyes. At the same time, this has proved to be a smart policy for the U.S. because of the huge purchasing power of Chinese visitors.

Locke is American with Chinese ancestry and he is U.S. Ambassador to China, so there is no doubt that he represents the U.S., not China or Chinese. If everyone pledged loyalty to their ancestral hometown, there would be no United States. Many Chinese do not understand that the US is a nation of immigrants.

In a globalizing world, everyone should have the tolerance to recognize the dual identities of others, as both national citizens and global villagers. Obviously Ambassador Gary Locke is loyal to his country, the U.S. At the same time he must be concerned with all other countries including China, the country of his ancestors. But first and foremost, his allegiance is to his own country. This has nothing to do with his race or the “color,” of either of his skin or his core. It is hard to understand slandering a non-Chinese for failing to promote Chinese interests just because his ancestors were Chinese.

In fact Ambassador Locke acted in conformity with the trend that China is attempting to practice. He traveled coach class to Beijing, in compliance with former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage‘s rules that American officials, even at the level of ambassador, have to fly economy class if the flight time is less than 14 hours, unless they have an official appointment upon arrival. Ambassador Locke’s flight was half an hour shy of 14 hours and he didn’t have an official engagement on arrival, so he didn’t qualify to fly a more comfortable class. I am pleased to see that my country is now exerting tougher control over its own officials’ travel and accommodation. Ambassador Locke did, indeed, enjoy a coffee at Starbucks, but it is odd to conceive of this as a deliberate show to make himself seem more down-to-earth. He probably does the same kinds of things all the time in private. Even if his common touch were a deliberate performance, one ought to exercise civility in tolerating it. These days many people who do the same are commended for it.

Indeed Ambassador Locke has addressed human rights issues frequently despite China’s progress. But China has done the same with regard to other countries. Chairman Mao supported Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil movement for equal rights, and China supported Nelson Mandela’s anti-apartheid, and it still publishes U.S. Human Rights Reports, as long as America does so first. Fundamentally, China and the U.S. should engage in dialogue in such areas to truly implement a “new type of major country relationship,” rather than looking at one-sided stories about each other. Having said this, I am critical of Ambassador Locke for illegally bringing Chen Guangcheng into the U.S. Embassy, a clear breach of Chinese law. But, the Chinese government still allowed Chen to leave the country, showing its attachment to the importance of bilateral relations.

Given the intense complexity of China-U.S. relations, rather than issuing such questionable comments, it would be prudent to bid farewell to Ambassador Locke with openness and balance.

This is a bit tangential to the main subject of this conversation, but Shen Dingli raises a very important issue in his post when he states, “I am critical of Ambassador Locke for illegally bringing Chen Guangcheng into the U.S. Embassy, a clear breach of Chinese law.” This is a serious accusation, and I don’t recall hearing it made at the time even by the Chinese government. If Locke really did violate Chinese law, the Chinese government and those who speak for it could be understandably angry. But did he? I would ask Prof. Shen to support this statement by identifying precisely which article of which law Gary Locke, or indeed Chen Guangcheng himself, violated when Chen entered the Embassy. Readers will appreciate that in this case, proving a negative—that there is no Chinese law prohibiting anything Locke or Chen did in this case—is impossible, whereas proving the affirmative—that there is such a law—should (if it’s true) be easy, especially if there’s a “clear breach.”

 The Chinese government asks all Chinese entering foreign embassies to do so in a "normal" way, i.e., to observe Chinese code (法规/规则), showing their identification and getting approval.  The government has the right not to approve some to enter.  The legal basis is the government’s code.  An action that does not observe it is illegal.  I believe all foreign embassies have agreed to this code.  But once Chinese have entered the embassies, Chinese law may not apply inside the physical mission there.

Such practice is quite universal.

Cheng Guangcheng was brought by U.S. embassy staff into the embassy, without observance of Chinese code. The Chinese government demanded that the U.S. side apologize and indicated that the embassy assured China it would prevent similar cases from recurring.

In making the above clarification, I have not made any comments on Chen himself.

Unfortunately, Prof. Shen simply repeats his assertion that a rule about Chinese citizens entering foreign embassies exists, but has still not provided a source for the rule or its text. Without knowing what this alleged rule actually says (and details are important), there is no way of knowing if Chen or Locke did anything illegal. It might be useful to remind readers that at the time he entered the U.S. embassy, Chen was a free citizen, not in lawful custody, and not wanted for any offense.
As for Prof. Shen’s assertion that it is a “universal practice” for governments to require their nationals to get permission before entering foreign embassies, he is simply misinformed. I live just a short distance away from the Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, and I can assure Prof. Shen that there are no American guards checking identification at the gate. The same is true for many other countries, including Canada and (I believe) all the EU countries.

The crude and derisive race-based assault on U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, however much its putative author might have wished, for domestic audiences, to mimic Mao Zedong's long-sanctified "Farewell, Leighton Stuart" anti-American essay from 1949, raises very serious concerns which must be promptly addressed.  Even as the Kunming horror, and the unfolding crises in Ukraine, tear us away from yesterday's news, this problem should not be allowed simply to fade away.

In its implications that Locke's Chinese ancestry should have ensured that China's interests (not those of the United States) would always be in the forefront of his priorities, it conjures the worst and potentially most corrosive American vision of China and the Chinese: as a nation defined by a tribalist "blood tie" identity, unable or unwilling to understand the modern world in anything but these most primeval of terms.  That vision of China, which, in my view, lurks beneath the surface of Western consciousness (remember the 19th century references to the Chinese as "Celestials") needs to stay buried, forever, if China and the world are now to live in harmony.  This cocky and disparaging essay, published in an official government-controlled environment, leads in the opposite direction; it is exactly what 21st century China should not be saying, to the U.S. or anyone else.

The essay also, in passing, is repellent and insulting to Chinese Americans, whether of the first or the fifth generation, suggesting that anyone "Chinese" who becomes "American" in effect becomes a "bad Chinese."

China News Service is an official body.  Simply noting that this essay was not an official statement by CNS is not sufficient.  CNS editors have official functions, and ultimately operate in a hierarchy of regime-defined authority.  Like other PRC organs, CNS presumably partakes of the current PRC concern over China's global "soft power," its "public diplomacy," and the conveying of benign images of China to the world.

For those reasons, it behooves China News Service to issue without delay an apology to Ambassador Locke and the American people whom he represented as American ambassador to China, and to indicate that those responsible for recruiting, editing, and publishing this cavalier and demeaning article have been appropriately dealt with. Such remedial actions would help to make up for the damage done to China's image, to say nothing of the offense committed against a dignified and accomplished American ambassador, and would actually speak well (not only to the wider world, but to the many people inside China who have spoken out against this offensive essay) of China's ability to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes, itself a too-often ignored element in any nation's public diplomacy.