Farewell, Leighton Stuart? The US Ambassador’s Jasmine Stroll in Wangfujing

Jon Huntsman, the American ambassador to China, caused a bit of a stir with his attendance at a non-demonstration-turned-media-event at the Wangfujing area McDonalds last week, an event held (or not held) in the wake of the “Jasmine Revolutions” in the Middle East.

Danwei.org carries the story and calls our attention to this rather critical video produced by some Chinese netizens about Huntsman (with English subtitles):

Shanghai journalist Adam Minter rapidly kicked out a blog post entitled “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Jon Meade Huntsman’s Got to Go.” Minter’s post concludes:

….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 area asking that question.[…] 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.

Left undiscussed in the Huntsman imbrolgio is the work that he and the State Department have been engaged in almost from the get-go of trying to build links to the Chinese blogosphere, as seen in and a pre-Hu Jintao state visit colloquy with Chinese bloggers on the White House website. In a more recent February 10 colloquy with Hunan journalists, Huntsman stated:

My expectations for the young people in China are that they’re able to maintain a grounded and proper understanding of who we are as Americans. I’ve noticed like with my son Will and the same with young people here in China. There’s so much information to access and so many sources from which to access the information that you go from one thing to another to another very quickly.

So you take a little information here and a little information there and sometimes you fail to stop and think and analyze for a long period of time the complexity of Chinese culture and history for Americans, and then for Chinese young people, the complexity and importance of American history. Sometimes that’s counter-intuitive. You have to sit and study and think for a long period of time.

My hope would be that more and more young people would take that study of culture and history of Americans seriously, and I would hope for the same thing among American young people.


Huntsman’s stroll and the backlash on the Chinese internet tests the durability of his work. Perhaps it would be useful to hearken back to 1947, when Chinese students protesting against American troops in China, inflamed by the Christmas Day rape of Beijing University student Shen Chong by a U.S. Marine, stated “a hundred years of friendship can be destroyed in a single day.”

My own response to the Huntsman affair began with a discussion with my students, with whom I watched the above video, and is informed by my colleague Sidney Rittenberg’s high regard for Huntsman’s work in China. We need a skillful Ambassador in Beijing, and, short of Secretary of State, is one of the more important posts in the whole of the Foreign Service. As I don’t yet have a fully-formed op-ed churned out on the subject, four comments are in order.

Comment #1:

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” (John Leighton Stuart, 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 part of a 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, even if the location 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: 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 特务/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 Huntsman had a hamburger in his hand and was drinking  a milkshake  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.

Huntsman 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.

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.

Comment #2:

Huanqiu Shibao decides to open the floodgates on [the “Huntsman Walk”]; on February 25 two articles appeared; more than 500 netizen comments [have been affixed] 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:

Some of 616 Netizen comments on this article include:

我觉得确实是碰巧 [“I believe it is a coincidence”]

现在中国发展那么好!为什么还有人当汉奸!不就是为钱吗!垃圾不如… [“Now China is so well developed! Why are there still people who become hanjian (traitors)? It can’t be for money, can it? What trash… ” (evidently referring to the previous comment)]

美国驻中国大使是一只披着羊皮的狼! [“The American Ambassador in China is a wolf in sheep’s clothing!]

有血性的中国人,起来打到美帝国主义![“You Chinese who have a pulse, stand up to strike down American imperialism! (seven exclamation points omitted in the translation)”]

现在很好,我们不需要什么民主,自由 [“Now it’s really good, we don’t need any democracy, freedom…”]

美国佬滚出中国“琉球群岛” [“Yankee, get out of China, go to the ‘Ryukyu Islands'”]

The second Huanqiu piece reports on the online action, anti-CNN coverage, etc., and is more of a follow-up piece: http://world.huanqiu.com/roll/2011-02/1522212.html

Of course, none very little 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.

…It bears reminding that Huntsman is slated to resign anyway as of April, a fact which makes the Ryan Lizza [The New Yorker] 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.

Comment #3:

美 国大使是不是暴乱分子,分裂分子?他在王府井的时候揭开了他的不承认中国主权的态度吗?如果中国爱国网民说‘对‘的话,有几问题:九月份出,美国大使到你 们国家的西藏自治区为出差,那时候他为什么没有作过分裂活动?又说,他是基督教徒,他为什么还没开口批评中国的教徒政策?他是不是达赖的亲友?

Which translates roughly as:

Is the American Ambassador to China a provoker of chaos [乱] or a separatist [e.g., one who wishes to detach portions of China such as Tibet from the motherland]? Did his walk on Wangfujing somehow expose that he does not respect Chinese sovereignty or China’s [political] system? If Chinese patriotic netizens say ‘yes,’ then I have a few questions [for them]: In early September, the American Ambassador went to your country’s Tibet Autonomous Region for work, why didn’t he engage in splittist activites at that time?Going on, Huntsman is a Christian: why hasn’t he yet opened his mouth to criticize China’s policies on religion?Is he or isn’t he a good friend of the Dalai Lama’s?

Comment #4:

1919 年日本占领朝鲜的言论自由比2011年中国‘特别制度‘言论自由大多了! 啥事儿?外国知识分子不爱批评中国,不想继续批评中国! 就想无墙上网,发表我们无为的没意思的文章,发怎么缺乏内容的段心,有缘分的话,读什么深入的。外国人(除大使之外)看微微小小的游行无罪,丢什么面子!

Which translates roughly as:

Japan’s colonial occupation of Korea had more freedom of speech in 1919 than does China with its ‘special characteristics’ in 2011! [A reference to the March 1, 1919 movement, which was inaugurated in a restaurant in Seoul.] What is that, anyway? Foreign intellectuals don’t love to criticize China, [we] don’t want to continue to criticize China! We just want to surf a web with no Great Firewall, publish our purposeless [无为] and uninteresting articles, send our text messages devoid of content, and, if we have luck, read something deep. There is nothing wrong with foreigners (excluding the American Ambassador) witnessing an extremely tiny demonstration; who is losing face, anyway?

Related Links:

Adam Cathcart, Review of Jeffrey A. Engel, ed., The China Diary of George H.W. Bush: The Making of a Global President, H-Diplomacy Reviews Roundtable, Vol. X, No. 18 (June 2009). [available as pdf., includes discussion of the possible debacle of Barbara Bush chauffeuring the family dog to shop on Wangfujing; further discussion of the Bush diary here on SV]

Jeremy Page, “What’s He Doing Here? Ambassador’s Unusual Protest Cameo,” Wall Street Journal China Real Time Report, 23 February 2011.

Any related Tweets or articles by Tom Lasseter, McClatchy’s man in Beijing; his work is head and shoulders the best available at the moment.

Jeremiah Jenne, “The Historical Record for December 24: The Christmas Eve Rape of Student Shen [Chong],” Jottings from the Granite Studio, 24 December 2008.

Adam Cathcart, “Atrocities, Insults and ‘Jeep Girls’: Depictions of the U.S. Military in China, 1945-1949,” International Journal of Comic Art, 10, no. 1 (2008 Spring): p. 140-154.

Mao Zedong, “Farewell, Leighton Stuart!Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1969), Vol. 4, pp. 433-440.

U.S. Ambassador John Leighton Stuart at a rebuilding Beijing University, 1946, before the Shen Chong Incident — click link for a discussion of his career with historians Nancy Bernkopf Tucker and Cold War history master Chen Jian


  1. I retweeted your Chinese tweets, nicely done. (Though, the English version clarified some minor Chinese issue.) I’m a Chinese native immigrated to the States, concerning politics in both countries, found your blog very enlightening. (Though my real interests are all things Tibetan.)
    I don’t have any particular opinions on the ambassador’s move, one thing I can think of is that eye-witnessing the event is far better than just reading or hearing the reports from news media or the underlings.
    A small thing, the URL of the pdf version of your review piece is not working, there are two “htttp:/”s in embedded link.

    1. Thanks the the comment and the heads-up on the link! Glad that the English version of the Tweets was more clear, that’s always an issue with people like myself who have it backwards and learned Chinese after learning English. (Actually, it’s obvious that I still have too much to learn about both languages.) I would like to have more Tibet-related content up on this blog, but was only in the TAR for a short time in October (about nine days) and then when I was really fired up to write about it in November 2010, my blog was blocked in China. Being a law-abiding guy and a dear, dear friend to Xi Jinping (OK, now, that is not true, but I am a law-abiding guy), I didn’t get a VPN and consequently my Tibet impetus was funneled primarily into two scholarly articles, one about Liu Shengqi, the top Tibetologist in the early PRC who began his interest in the plateau as an English-language translator for the Guomindang in Lhasa from 1944-1949, and another one about the recent film “Kangding Love Story.” If and when these get published, I’ll probably provide a link here or a short explanation of that work, and in the meantime fight a losing, rear-guard struggle to keep up with all the Dalai-Lama type issues and what’s going on in India, etc., but probably not posting too much of that stuff until I know a little more about it. Like go to Dharamsala in December, but leave my sunglasses and Top Gun leather jacket at home.

  2. To me, Ambassador Huntsman has always come across as somewhat crude, and the hymnic welcome in some Chinese English-language media had caught me by surprise then.
    But while I think any ambassador in any country should pay some attention to his host country’s situation, I do not think that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I tried to sum up two perspectives on international relations (and non-interference in internal affairs) about a year ago, and in my belief, it is simply part of relations with China.

    Basically, no matter when Huntsman’s job in Beijing expires, the Chinese government could still send him home ahead of schedule, for activities not in line with his… – or whatever the correct explanation for such an expulsion would be.
    Or – and that would be smarter -, they could say something like
    “We can’t establish at the moment if the ambassador’s appearance there was coincidental or intentional, and we will therefore see him off next month, when his term expires anyway. No fuss now, but we would like to take this opportunity and remind whoever is going to be his successor that …” etc..

    But then, maybe both Huntsman and the Chinese government can see some good in the “affair” – Huntsman, if he runs for president, and the Chinese, because they didn’t need to think something else up to keep their nationalists excited.

    1. That’s a very interesting observation, JR, about the mutual utility between Chinese nationalists and those who rail against them in the U.S. I would make a sloppy comparison between Iris Chang’s burning anger and that of a handful of Japanese revisionist scholars/war deniers (don’t they need each other, really?) but that, as I said, would be sloppy.

      Maybe this is the beginning of the conversation about what role China will play in the 2012 US Presidential election…

  3. I wasn’t actually aware that Mrs Chang had killed herself years ago, and that she was only in her mid-thirties at the time of her death. Seems a book has been written about her since, Finding Iris Chang.

    I think every historical account written about something previously rather unreported is a merit. Raising hell around it… it’s not my style. I think I’d find it hard to get along with people with a mission, as respectable as their missions may be. That’s not only true for Chang, who was certainly admired by official and unofficial China, but also for many human rights campaigners – people whom I admire. If I wanted to meet them personally is a different question.

    I’ve heard some references to Huntsman’s Chinese language skills. Do you know something about that topic? Is he a fluent speaker?

    1. Yes, he’s said to be fluent from two years as a missionary in Taiwan. There is probably video of him somewhere on the US Embassy website, which I have hardly scoured comprehensively, the Obama admin. as you know is much more video-friendly than its predecessor…

      I’ll have much, much more to say about this Chang topic in an essay I am allegedly finishing for Japan Focus. Perhaps I could e-mail you a draft to get some comments? I would appreciate your feedback.

  4. Just sent you an e-mail you can send your draft to, if you like.
    Personally, I hope Mr Obama will win a second term in office (provided that his performance doesn’t go grossly down during the next months), but I must admit that meetings between a president Huntsman and a chairman Xi could be very entertaining. My imagination is going wild with fictional dialogues!

  5. Look, you can’t just refer to “chinese netizens” as they would be American, European or citizens of countries without censored internet. “Chinese netizen” is an invalid category, at least when it comes to discussing political issues.

    The 600+ comments says nothing about what the general public or the average netizen thinks about this issues. As you very well know, all of these comments might as well have been written by the 五毛党 (50 cent party, chinese “netizens” who are paid to write positive about the party). Short BBC-article about this here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7783640.stm

    The only personal experience I have of Huntsman is through friends/colleagues at CCTV+Xinhua, amongst them he is very well liked, albeit perceived as somewhat eccentric.

    The rape parallel is just… wrong. We don’t know anything about how the “Chinese netizens” feel about this, since the ones who dissent from the official line are being cut away.

    1. Jakob, thanks much for the comments and critiques. Particularly as to the last point, I think it highlights the danger of historians drawing parallels to present-day events. In the course of comparing the challenges of two US ambassadors at radically different times, the temptation is to make facile parallels between “youth opinion” which, even in the absence of the internet, is a somewhat foolish thing to reify or totalize, characterize as some monolithic force. At the same token, disentangling what is and what isn’t government-driven is notoriously difficult in the Chinese milieu. At least in the 1940s we could try to figure out if it was the Nationalists or the Communists steering events, giving us a choice when trying to discern motives and expression of nationalism.

      Anyhow, I appreciate your opinion on this (and on pretty much anything Northeast Asia-related), you are involved in some great stuff and I admire your work, meaning that I’ll probably be thinking for a while about your comment and what it means for my future interpretation of “democratic movements” (also a problematic designator, and such as they are!) in Asia.

  6. The BBC topic Jakob linked to, but in more detail:
    China’s Guerrilla War for the Web, by David Bandurski for the Far Eastern Economic Review, a few months earlier than the BBC.

    1. I really enjoy Bandurski’s work a great deal, as it is probably some of the best stuff available online. There have been a few books recently about Cybernationalism in China that I have yet to get my hands on, but frankly, that’s a relatively low priority for me at this moment. Perhaps next fall I will have more of a learning curve on the subject of the make up of the so-called “netizens.” Thanks JR!

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