It’s amazing how much leeway people will give you if you speak a bit of Chinese. Take, for example, US Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman. After Obama selected him in 2009, smart people greeted his ascension to Beijing as a masterstroke based upon two factors: a) Obama had just eliminated a potential rival for his re-election in 2012; and b) Huntsman is a China expert, mostly based – best as I can tell – upon whatever language proficiency he gained during a couple of years serving as a missionary in Taiwan. I’ll leave for people with more ability than me to determine if Huntsman’s Chinese is as good as advertised, and rather get to the question of his current China expertise and judgment.
[addendum: and they have. Gady Epstein of Forbes tweets: "Caveat: Huntsman had quality resume of diplomatic & trade experience with Asia. Chinese lang was just a bit of icing."]
Last Sunday somebody on the interwebs called for a ‘Jasmine Revolution’ to take place in 13 Chinese cities. The source of this message remains a complete mystery (publicly, at least), and the response to it was – charitably – underwhelming. Multiple accounts suggest that it mostly attracted foreign journalists and cops. At least, that was the story before yesterday when video surfaced of Ambassador Huntsman strolling by the McDonald’s where the Beijing protest was supposed to be – and doing so in a leather jacket with a US flag patch on the left shoulder. Now, reasonably speaking, I think we can all agree that both the cops and the press had some reason to be there. But the US ambassador?
The two entities likely to respond most quickly to his presence have responded predictably: the US Embassy claims that Huntsman’s presence was a coincidence; and xenophobic Chinese internet users claim that the US ambassador was there to cheer-lead (if not organize) revolution.
I think it’s safe to say that neither of these responses (both ridiculous, by the way) enhances the standing of the US – much less, its ambassador – in China. But the latter, inciting the suspicions of China’s netizens, is a particularly woeful and unneccesary self-inflicted wound of the sort that US ambassadors to China really shouldn’t – and generally don’t – make. Which leaves many people to question: was Huntsman’s presence at the rally purposeful, or just an incredible lapse in (China) judgment that his staff should have – and maybe did – warn him against making?
My own opinion is that Huntsman, now all but official as a candidate for President in 2012, wasn’t concerned with how Chinese would interpret his presence at the rally, but rather by how US citizens – particularly those who will vote in 2012 – will receive his presence (in a leather bomber jacket with a US flag patch on the left sleeve) at the rally. That’d make for a nice campaign ad, and a sweet vignette in a campaign stump speech. Of course, I don’t know and can’t confirm that; but the problem is, people with bigger audiences than me are asking that question (and others, with even bigger audiences, are hinting at it but not saying it out of – I dunno – some professional obligation not to speculate like a blogger). And if others are asking that question, then I think we need to ask the bigger question: do Huntsman’s political ambitions conflict with his ability to carry out the role of US ambassador until his announced departure on April 30? I hope somebody in Washington is beginning to contemplate an answer.
Craven, or just plain stupid – let me know what you think in the comments.
And for what it’s worth, the whole thing reminds me of this Tom Wait song.
[Addendum: Several emails have pointed out that the damage done by this visit is already measurable. In the last day, for example, Huntsman's name has become a censored term on China's internet - and that has to be a first for a US ambassador. But more than that, one has to wonder how Huntsman's counterparts in diplomacy are going to judge him after this. After all, Huntsman's role as ambassador is not to overthrow the Chinese government, but rather to communicate with it, regardless of the issue. By showing up at a protest rally against that very government - a rally designed to start a movement to overthrow that government - Huntsman has undoubtedly damaged his ability - and that of his diplomatic mission - to do diplomacy in China. Foolish in the extreme. He should go.]
[Addendum 2/25: It's very much worth pointing out Huntsman's difficulty in balancing his ambassadorial duties with his presidential aspirations were 100% foreseeable. In fact, they were 100% foreseen in a prescient blog post by Jim Fallows, available here.]
[2nd addendum 2/25: The China Youren blog has a strongly worded post - with which I mostly agree - about why Huntsman's appearance at the rally undermines the Chinese democratic movement. Key quote: "Don’t US pols understand democracy can only win if it's seen as homegrown?" Worth a read.]
[Addendum 2/26: The New Yorker's Ryan Lizza has an interesting post regarding the "Huntsman walk" that pivots on this interesting query: "The fallout from Huntsman’s adventure in a Beijing market clotted with protesters raises an interesting question: What if, in his last two months before he leaves his Beijing post, Huntsman provoked some sort of diplomatic row that emphasized an ideological split with the President?"]