What Should the Next U.S. Ambassador to China Tackle First?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Mary Kay Magistad: Gary Locke succeeded in a way that few U.S. ambassadors to China have—in improving public perceptions of U.S. culture.  Locke’s down-to-earth approachability and lack of ostentation certainly helped. So did the initiatives of shortening waits for U.S. visas from 70-100 days to 3-5 days, and making pollution data public, helping the Chinese people pressure their government into doing the same. Not bad for two and a half years.

The new U.S. ambassador to China should continue to make it easier for Chinese to come to the United States to visit, work and study.  Millions of Chinese parents are concerned that China’s educational system isn’t teaching their kids the critical and creative thinking skills they’ll need to succeed in a Chinese economy that increasingly will be based more on ideas than on cheap manufacturing. Gifted students should be allowed to come to the United States and study and, if they like, stay and work.   And if and when they go back to China, they will be living examples of how learning, working and living in a more open society leads to the kind of thinking that China needs to transform its economy and gain the kind of respect it wants in the world.

Within China, the new U.S. ambassador also can encourage and facilitate educational and scientific exchanges, and suggest that sharing ideas is better for China in the long run than building a protective fence around China’s own ‘indigenous innovators.’  That may be a cozy setup for existing Chinese companies; it does little to encourage the kind of breakthrough innovation China’s leaders want.

One area where both China and the United States could benefit from more such breakthrough innovation is in figuring out how to move both countries more quickly from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy.    Already, the cost of solar power has dropped sharply, and next year, China plans to install 12,000 megawatts of solar power within China.  That’s the output of about a dozen large nuclear power plants. The United States is expected to install just one-third that much solar power within its borders, this year.  Each country could help the other do better, and the world would benefit.

On the political front—geopolitical tensions with Japan and in the South China Sea are likely to continue, and the U.S. ambassador likely will be having many a discussion with Chinese counterparts on those issues. There may come a testing of U.S. resolve to remain the predominant Pacific power, and while policy will be made in Washington, diplomacy in Beijing will play a role in sending the necessary signals in a timely fashion.  Some in China believe China inevitably will eclipse the United States, which should have the good grace to step aside as leading superpower sooner rather than later.  The new U.S. ambassador will do well to project confidence without arrogance, and an attitude that the China-U.S. relationship is vitally important, because both countries are important to the global economy, politics and environment, and are likely to remain so for a long time to come.

On the home front, China’s leaders have signaled that they’re open to all kinds of change, but decidedly not political reform.  They’ve even labeled constitutional democracy, human rights and press freedom as Western-tainted ‘perils.’  But an ever-more informed, sophisticated and demanding Chinese public is growing restless in its desire to have some of these very things. This presents the new U.S. ambassador with both an opportunity and a challenge.  Be too heavy-handed or self-congratulatory in promoting democratic values, and China’s state-run media quickly will point out U.S. hypocrisies (N.S.A. blanket surveillance of U.S. citizens, for starters), and drum up nationalistic resentment against U.S. attempts to lecture China.  Strike the right tone, and lead by personal example, and the new U.S. ambassador could make a real difference.  It wouldn’t hurt to bring a backpack.


It’s hard to separate thoughts on what’s needed in our next ambassador to Beijing from what that ambassador should do when he or she takes the job, so these comments contain a little of both elements.

All ambassadors are, first and foremost, messenger-representatives of their heads of government. Our next ambassador to China will, I hope, have a strong and reliable connection to President Obama, and be able reliably to articulate to the Chinese the reasoning and the intended meaning of the President's words and views.

The next ambassador will, of course, report to the Secretary of State, and be structurally integrated into the State Department. U.S.-China relations today cover practically the entire spectrum of U.S. government responsibilities. At the ambassadorial level, “diplomacy” must include worldly competence on a range of issues not normally included in the State Department’s own brief. Our Beijing embassy has very significant staffing by personnel from a host of other agencies, most notably the Department of Commerce, but many, many others as well. The U.S. and China now conduct something like eighty agency-to-agency official dialogues, and the U.S. ambassador must, with the assistance of staff, be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” in all of them. The job requires, for lack of a better term, a truly worldly individual.

That needed worldliness does not mean that rank unfamiliarity with China is all right; it is not. This relationship is too big to place the ambassadorship in the hands of someone without a basic grasp of China’s geography, its political and economic systems, and ideally its cultural foundations, and its social realities. Chinese language skill would be an asset, but is not required (our ambassadors, including Ambassador Locke, have been served with distinction by extraordinarily talented interpreter). Some orientation will be needed for anyone taking the job, but there is too much at stake to place the job in the hands of a novice, and the Chinese will be alert to both the downsides and the upsides (for them) of dealing with a China newbie if one is appointed. Happily, now that U.S.-China relations have grown to their current depth and scope, there are plenty of Americans both in government and in the private sector who have the background and China skills needed for this position.

Finally (at least for this purpose), the ambassador is ultimately responsible for the quality of the entire embassy’s performance. The embassy in Beijing is huge; hundreds upon hundreds of Americans work there. Conditions are good, by comparison with those in many other countries, but this isn’t Paris. Embassy personnel face many challenges in executing their jobs and maintaining their personal and family lives. A considerate, thoughtful, and supportive ambassador will be an important factor in the smooth functioning of this massive institution.

Now, as to what the new ambassador will need to be good at, just a few thoughts:

  1. The phrase, “new type of big country relations” may sound like empty rhetoric—and it may, over time, turn out to be that—but at this time it is the “operative” phrase, used by both countries, to define and structure U.S.-China relations in the future. It has many meanings, but the overall emphasis is on the positive—on refuting the oft-assumed inevitability of conflict between the “established power” and the “rising power.” The new ambassador's top broadly defined job should be to turn this rhetorical formula (which came to special prominence during the Obama-Xi Jinping meeting at the Annenberg Estate Sunnylands, in southern California, several months ago) into effective programmatic action, not only by carrying out commands from Washington but by contributing his or her insights as to how this “new type of big country relationship” can be actualized.
  2. The new ambassador may anticipate sudden crises; U.S.-China relations over the decades have been pock marked by emergencies, some more threatening than others. Think of Ambassador James Sasser holed up in the U.S. embassy, surrounded by furious protesters, after the U.S. bombing of the P.R.C. embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Think of Ambassador Joseph Prueher, himself a distinguished Admiral, trying in vain to get someone in authority on the phone in the hours following the Navy EP-3 collision with a Chinese fighter and forced landing at a Chinese military base in Hainan, in April 2001. Think of Ambassador Locke’s role in the dramatic escape of dissident Chen Guangcheng and his rapid flight into the U.S. embassy in 2012. The list goes on. The new ambassador will need crisis-management skills.
  3. The new ambassador must work hard to make the United States a nuanced reality, rather than a one- or two-dimensional stereotypic image, for the people of China in all walks of life. The U.S. exerts a peculiarly intense claim on the attentions of many Chinese people, not all of it friendly or even tolerant. Nationalism bordering on strutting chauvinism raises its ugly head in many quarters in China, especially but not only online, with much of the bile directed at the U.S. The conviction that the United States is bent on thwarting the legitimate aspirations of the Chinese nation and people (usually referred to as China's “rise,” and linked nowadays to the current Chinese leadership's signature rhetorical phrase, “The China Dream”) is easily inflamed. The new ambassador must walk the line between the dignified assertion of American positions and values, on the one hand, and a more reactive deflection or denial of the misguided portrayals of our complex nation that unfortunately crop up often in China.
  4. Finally (again, one could go on much longer), the new ambassador will have to represent effectively, at the highest levels of Chinese political authority and among the Chinese people themselves, a United States whose own intractable political dysfunctions are laid bare daily before the world. From time to time these days, Chinese voices like to use the disarray of the American political system as a kind of object lesson ostensibly proving—to the Chinese people and to third-country audiences—that the U.S. system of government (and the underlying values the U.S. looks to for its political self-definition) are neither appropriate for China nor likely to be useful as a model for other nations. Even as the ambassador’s own bureaucracies–State, Commerce, etc.—stagger along, awaiting the uncertain outcomes of the next Congressional budget showdown or the next standoff between White House and Capitol Hill, our ambassador to Beijing must embody the excellent best the U.S. can be in terms of mature, stable American international behavior. In other words, the ambassador must somehow mediate between the requirement of firm, dignified continuity in this most important of bilateral relations, and the messy home-country rivalries and conflicts that make conduct of effective foreign policy so very difficult. The Beijing job is not one for the weak of stomach or nerves.

Maybe what we really need is a great poker player—or, even better, someone equally skilled at poker and the Chinese strategic game of weiqi. (I might add that the more familiar Japanese name for weiqi is go, but that would probably provoke a nasty diplomatic incident....)