Hey hey, ho ho, Jon Meade Huntsman’s got to go.

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?"]

22 thoughts on “Hey hey, ho ho, Jon Meade Huntsman’s got to go.

  1. Great post.

    Leighton Stuart, an undisputed “China hand” and the last U.S. Ambassador to China before the Nationalists fled to Taiwan, analyzed the events of 1948 in his memoir: “This narrative…is written…to furnish a guide for the future from these failures. The Chinese people ardently desired independence, unity, peace, economic recovery, and democratic government. These things the American Government and people also desired for China. With my dual attachment there could, therefore, be no slightest conflict of loyalties for me as to the objectives. The Chinese knew of my love for their country, my concern for their welfare, my liberal attitude and my convictions as to a peaceful solution of their internal strife through inclusive and untrammeled co-operation. I had therefore the full advantage of their trust. But I failed them” (_Fifty Years in China_ [Random House: 1954], p. 211).

    It’s fair to say that the job of U.S. Ambassador to China has become a great deal more complicated since Stuart’s time. (Although in fairness, Stuart would probably vehemently disagree with the statement, having been interred by the Japanese, jerked around by Chiang Kai-shek, witnessed an immense and open civil war in China, and having been ejected rudely in a public slap by Mao Zedong. By contrast, Huntsman is just another cog in the Foreign Service machinery whose primary aim is, ostensibly, to maintain the status quo.) It is simply incomprehensible that someone as suave as Huntsman would believe that in the present communications environment, he would go unnoticed and unobserved at Wangfujing, a location which, speaking suddenly in his defense, isn’t all that far from his office.

    Not to submit Huntsman to the same level of scrutiny as we might accord to, say, Kim Jong-un (and the meaning of the Third Represent’s fur hat, or his haircut, or his watch, or his curious binoculars technique), but yes, Adam, you’re quite right: what’s up with the American flag patch and the sunglasses? Is there anyway he might appear more like a Chinese caricature of an American tewu/spy from the 1950s? Doesn’t our Embassy in Beijing have a public relations officer or someone who might have consulted our dear Ambassador about such things. If the distinguished dude had a hamburger in his hand and was sucking on a milkshake (oops, contaminated products) maybe he could have gotten away with it.

    In George H.W. Bush’s newly published _China Diary_ the author brags on how the Chinese people in the same neighborhood had began to recognize him over the course of the year he spent in Beijing. And how important it was for the smallest detail not to ruin his carefully-cultivated image of a down-home dude who understood the Chinese people. In 1974, Bush becomes nearly enraged when his wife Barbara takes the family dog to the main department store on Wangfujing, leaving the Chinese chauffeur and the family dog to wait in the car outside. Because even George H.W. Bush, who was our chief Liaison Officer in Beijing before full normalization and the return of the Ambassador in 1979, is aware of how quickly the old stereotypes about American imperialists can be revived. Maybe Huntsman didn’t read much of his predecessors’ writing…

    I’m not following his career with too much detail, but Huntsman has probably done a great deal of good work. He was the first U.S. Ambassador to travel into Tibet in September (a visit that to my knowledge garnered virtually no public comment), something we might consider significant, a minor opening; he accompanied Hu Jintao on the recent state visit, and no one seemed to complain. But maybe he’s just homesick and having the post-Spring Festival blues. Maybe he’s itching to get back into the RNC conversations and go to Wisconsin and bust a fucking union to get a little more street cred with the Michelle Bachmann wing of the Republican Party.

    What would Walter Mondale say?

    Anyway, you’re quite right. If Huntsman is going the way of Douglas MacArthur in 1947-1948, funneling his fantasies and devoting his dearest hopes into a nascent Republican Presidential run in primaries like Wisconsin, maybe it’s better to give the job in East Asia to someone who is interested in doing it really well, and let the conquering hero return home to see for himself just what his colleagues have wrought.

  2. I think it is plausible that the Ambassador did happen to be there by coincidence. Believe it or not, ambassadors do have leisure on the weekends and do go places like McDonalds with their kids. Their every move is not planned. If he was there on purpose, then it would be against normal practice by all means – and would probably be self-serving as you suggest.

  3. Hi Jay – Long time, no comment. Glad to see you back.

    The thing that tipped me and others off that this may not have been any ordinary outing was the presence of bodyguards. Huntsman generally takes a lot of pride in going out on his own – bicycling around Beijing, to the Foreign Ministry – without an entourage. There was just a recent article – I think in the WSJ – describing this practice. Thus, when he does otherwise, when he brings muscle, you have to think that he’s off somewhere of concern to him and his family. That’s the real tip-off to me (and others).

  4. Just goes to show that you shouldn’t assume anything – even when blogging: the bodyguards appear to be Huntsman’s sons. Strapping boys, to be sure.

  5. Do we know who actually shot the video? If Huntsman really wanted to use this in a campaign, wouldn’t you expect him to want to have good visuals? In fact, the reports say that he took off as soon as someone recognized him. If it was an attempt to generate a photo-op, he doesn’t seem to have put much effort into it. He just strikes me as being a better politician than that.

  6. There is no way he was there by coincidence. No way the ambassador in Beijing didn’t know about it when everyone in the press corps was aware. What a joke!

    Adam, to answer your question: this is not only stupid, it is a tragedy, and one more blow on the real supporters of democracy. Huntsman acts for his own interest, and this time the Anti-CNN crew are right to cry foul (although of course I don’t necessarily agree with everything they say).

  7. Photo-op or not, I really find it hard to believe that the Ambassador had no idea anything may or may not have been going on. It was all over the English and Chinese language social media the day before, and even if the Ambassador isn’t on top of those things, surely it has to be the job of some people in his staff to monitor them and report back something as potentially important as this. I mean, as we saw in the Wikileaks, some of the most mundane information can be contained in the “classified” communications.
    So if Huntsman is not being truthful about not knowing before hand about 2 pm on Sunday at the Wangfujing McD’s, then what was he doing with his children in tow, on a family outing, in a potentially dangerous situation is beyond me.
    Either Huntsman (and his staff) look bad because they had no idea about what could have happened Sunday, or he himself looks bad because he was taking his family to witness something that could have been terribly ugly.

    Yeah, I’m not getting good feelings from this.

  8. Siweiluozi – We’re in the realm of speculation here, but one thing we know for sure: there was a lot of American media on Wangfujing, and if a real protest had been taking place, there’s no doubt that they would’ve filmed Huntsman. That’s the footage.

    Why did he leave? Perhaps for the same reason that everybody else did: it was a small, nothing event. No point in wasting his prestige on that.

  9. Interesting post. Two comments:
    One- it was a dopey thing, but the guy is extremely impressive
    Two- there have only been two ambassador’s in the internet age, and the other one wasn’t active enough for anyone to realize he existed, much less get censored

  10. I appreciate the fact that you somehow managed to be the first blogger to come out and say it. You should be rewarded with traffic. I’m sure you know that you just opened up this discussion to other journalists who can now say “some are suggesting that Huntsman allowed political considerations to dictate …” Nice work.

  11. Al – In regard to your second point: fair enough, but if you’re going to raise your profile, then it’s doubly incumbent that you not screw it up because the fall is going to be that much further. Randt was a good, low-profile ambassador; I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anything wrong with his tenure. Certainly, you won’t find a major faux-pas along these lines.

  12. 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.
    I have no strong opinions about Huntsman’s appearance there. But internet censorship shouldn’t influence or guide his decisions at all. This is flawed logic and may suggest just as well that the BBC should continuously “defuse” its Chinese-language website, until it becomes acceptable for the censors. After all, isn’t it a “first” for the broadcaster to be read in China?

  13. I think Huntsman’s name is censored in China because Chinese government don’t want Chinese Nationalism to rear its ugly head. Anti-American government sentiment is already very high in China. The sentiment of the guy talking to Huntsman “you want China to fall to Chaos?” is pretty much there.

    Think about it, if the Chinese Media decides to uncensor this incident and reported that Huntsman is in this ‘Jasmine Revolution,’ there will be nasty anti-American protests in the streets. We will probably see the same Nationalist movements when Japan captures the Chinese fishing vessel last year.

  14. justrecently – Thanks for the comment. I’m going to disagree, however, with the suggestion that the BBC and the US ambassador have to function with the same considerations in mind. Among other functions, the US ambassador has to engage in public diplomacy – that is, he needs to engage and inform the Chinese public, in part to curtail national sentiments that might influence the Party. This has been an important, avowed facet of Huntsman’s tenure in Beijing, and US policy in China under the Obama administration, and one that’s been tolerated by the Party. But now, by engaging in behavior that’s caused his name to become a ‘sensitive’ term, he’s just made it that much harder to do that part of his job.

    In any case, the point isn’t whether he CAN say and what he wants in China, but rather, US foreign policy goals are best served by him saying and doing what he wants in China. By going to Wangfujing, he’s harmed those goals.

    pug_ster – Reasonable point. Among other things, the CCP doesn’t have any interest in seeing anti-American riots in the cities at the moment.

  15. Huanqiu Shibao decides to open the floodgates on this one; on February 25 two articles appeared; more than 500 netizen comments on each already….

    The first is an op-ed that makes clear Huntsman has done good work, but that his appearance at the protest cannot possibly be a coincidence, and cannot be separated from his representation of U.S. policy, that Huntsman’s sunglasses are a great metaphor for American sneakiness and secret stimulating of uprisings in such places as Egypt, that the U.S. is trying to use the Internet to disturb China, and (big surprise) that no one, including Jon Huntsman, can stop China’s inevitable rise.

    Anyway, here’s the link:
    http://opinion.huanqiu.com/roll/2011-02/1524456.html

    The second Huanqiu piece reports on the online action, anti-CNN coverage, etc., more of a follow-up piece

    http://world.huanqiu.com/roll/2011-02/1522212.html

    Of course, none of this material is mirrored on the Huanqiu’s English-language site (“Premier Wen Jiabao Chats with Netizens!” happy happy China China), but it is already up on 163.com, etc., appears to be widely circulating on the Chinese web.

    By the way, tho it doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere here explicitly, it bears reminding that Huntsman is slated to resign anyway as of April, a fact which makes the Ryan Lizza question about Huntsman provoking an ideological conflict with Obama a salient one indeed.

    If this continues to metastasize and Huntsman indeed emerges as a harsh critic of the administration, and his walk as a kind of deliberate stunt (who knows?), perhaps blame can ultimately be laid at the feet of the President for not replacing him immediately (although the appointment process is rarely so fast) or for appointing him in the first place. There is such a fine line, it seems, between master stroke and obvious blunder…Excuse me, I’ve got a walk to take.

  16. Why isn’t your mistake about his sons being bodyguards in your addendums, rather than your comments? Haven’t you been in journalism long enough to know that if it isn’t attached to the original article, any mistakes might not be caught when added to the comments or letters sections? Sloppy and somewhat unprofessional, pandering to a need to be the first one to point out this or that facet of the incident. In my opinion, taking pains to point out that you are “only a blogger” here is a way of saying that if you make mistakes or jump the gun, it should be written off because you are just indulging your hobby. Come on man, you’re better than that (no condescension intended). Besides that, in other arenas you very much are a journalist – do you rush to judegement quicker on your blog? If so, why?

    As to whether or not Huntsman might “damage” other’s chances of securing “democracy”, how self-important can we as Americans be? If Obama and H. Clinton have declining influence in Beijing, how can a lame duck ambassador be that powerful that his mere presence outside a McDonald’s stoke the mighty flames of democracy???? There may be some who feel that a man in a Top Gun jacket with a flag attached (how corny is that) stirs the pot of democracy, but where, other than in editorials and blogs, is there ANY indication that that the BJ powers that be regarded Huntsman as anything more than a gadfly/man jockeying for position in 2012?

  17. James G – Fair questions, all.

    First – I did not bring up the Huntsman/Sons/Bodyguards issue in the text of the post. I brought it up in the comments, and I corrected it in the very next comment. If the post contains an error, I’ll add an amendment/correction to the post. If the comments contain an error, I’ll correct it in a comment. I think that’s fair.

    As for the second point/graf – I refer you to the comment above yours, #16 by Adam Cathcart, for a sense of how Chinese netizens are responding to Huntsman’s stroll. Sure, the “BJ powers that be” might regard Huntsman as jockeying, but they’re also very sensitive to symbolic gestures, and seeing the ambassador take a stroll through a protest is not the sort of symbol they like – as proven by their abrupt decision to censor searches for his name on the internet.

    It’s undeniably true: I do tend to rush to judgment quicker on my blog. That’s the nature of the medium, and I’m the first to admit it.

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  20. Great post. He was the right pick at the time Obama chose him. But the “walk” was a huge blunder.

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