Since his nomination as the next United States Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman Jr. has been at the forefront of a new wave of media frenzy. While the political maneuvering and jockeying behind his nomination has enthralled pundits and experts in the US, his “China connections” is now the talk of the town across the Pacific.
“The nomination is guaranteed to be eye-catching among the Chinese media and the general public,” Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Center for American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, told chinadaily.com.cn.
“They (the public) value very much the China connections (of a foreign public figure in general),” Shi said, “When you’ve got an ambassador to China who can speak fluent Chinese and who has adopted a Chinese daughter, I’m not surprised that he has been in the spotlight.”
In fact the five Chinese Americans - the highest number in American history - including former Washington Governor Gary Locke and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu, President Obama picked for his cabinet and cabinet-level offices may have already provided an early clue to something extraordinary, if anything.
Still, the attention given to Jon Huntsman Jr. and his appointment differs from his predecessors, to say the least.
Not only did the nomination hit the headlines in China and the US, the Japanese, the Koreans and “even the Europeans who don’t have much stake in the appointment have displayed an unusual amount of interest. This is unprecedented.” said Zhang Xiaojin, Deputy Director of Center for European Studies and professor of Political Science at the same university.
It is indeed both telling and fitting that the relations often touted by China and the US as the most important are now receiving their fair amount of attention from the outsiders which have been long overdue. And this intense interest lies as much in the soon-to-be US ambassador’s Chinese credentials as in his governorship, if not more.
“He is more knowledgeable about China than his predecessors,” said Zhang, who has closely watched last year’s US presidential election. “More significantly, he can speak fluent Chinese.”
“In a country where English proficiency among the leadership is not quite high and where the native language is sometimes confusing and even mystifying to foreigners, speaking Chinese on special and delicate occasions will greatly cut the distance and help smooth and facilitate the exchanges (between the two sides).”
Indeed, while Washington does not lack the likes of Senator Joe Lieberman and the current Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who possess a keen knowledge of China, those who can really communicate in Chinese are few and far between.
But the number is rising now, albeit slowly, as Washington is gradually mastering the subtleties of dealing with Beijing.
“The Chinese language is historically an integral – and perhaps the most important – component of the Chinese identity. So you can never underestimate how much goodwill you can earn when you, as a foreigner, address the public in Chinese.” Zhang said thoughtfully.
Jon Huntsman Jr. has probably already knew this when he said “Together we work, together we progress” in Chinese during the press conference of his nomination.
However, his “China connections” risk being played up too much by the Chinese media, as often does the case of foreign figures who are somewhat related to China.
“His experience with China and his Chinese language skills mean, at the very least, he could be a big asset for both China and the US,” professor Shi said.
But he warned against too much optimism, “The task for an ambassador, first and foremost, is to implement rather than formulate the policy. An ambassador, to some extent, is just an ambassador. And even if he is emotionally closer to China, he is still – an American.”
The same could also be said against those Chinese American cabinet officials. While the Chinese should be proud of their achievements and their presence in Washington does mean a lot to China-US relations, the facts that they have pledged allegiance to the USA and that their appointments are as much motivated by domestic considerations should be born in mind.
Don’t be carried away.