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On The “Chineseness” Of Gary Locke. Not My Language.

Posted in China Business, Good People

I don’t know Gary Locke, the new ambassador to China, but I feel that I know a lot about him from the Seattle-Legal-China rumor mills. Almost without exception, those mills paint him as a good guy, capable, and moderate. I have also more than once heard that he isn’t “really Chinese at all” or that he is “no more Chinese than I am.”  

I do not even know exactly what it means to be “really Chinese” or for someone to be “more Chinese” than someone else and I am not and statements like that bother me. 

I think these statements are trying to get at how most (but I am sure not all) of Locke’s formative influences came from his having grown up in the United States as a third generation American. Locke attended elementary school, middle school, high school, and college in the United States and rose through the ranks as a “normal” American lawyer-politiciant, starting out as a prosecutor and then eventually becoming a governer.  I think that these statements are also meant to reflect that we cannot simply assume Locke is an expert on China simply because he is ethnic Chinese. Does anyone dispute that if Locke were a Caucasian, nobody would be saying he’s not “really German” or “not really French” or whatever?

I mention all of this after reading “Does Gary Locke Speak Chinese” on the Language Log Blog and Adam Minter’s Bloomberg story, “New U.S. Ambassador Sparks Emotional Debate in China.” Both articles talk of how Locke is perceived in China and in the United States and of whether he is seen as Chinese or not, particularly when he does not speak Mandarin. Both articles are very thoughtful and well worth a read.

These articles reminded me of a post I did a couple years ago, entitled, “Your Chinese-American VP Don’t Know Diddley ‘Bout China Law And I Have Friggin Had It,” in which I talk of how American companies just assume their Chinese-American employee is an expert on everything China:

I have had it with US companies believing their Chinese-American Vice-President (or whatever) is somehow qualified to practice International law. Let me back up.

Many of our clients that do business in China have someone in their company driving their China business. This person is typically a Chinese-American who has been living in the United States for ten or more years. This person is oftentimes an engineer or some other technical person. This person typically is good at his or her job and has risen to a trusted position. This person is usually trusted by the company and the trust is usually justified.

In spite of this Chinese person’s lack of ANY legal training or business training, this person is typically chosen to be the lead person to start up operations in China. The company is of the view that because this person grew up in China (even though this person probably has never done any real business there and has not been back but for a vacation or two in the last ten years) this person must know everything about the legal and business aspects of starting and running a company in China.

Everything.

Now step back, if you would, and think about the absurdity of that. Please.

Now once this Chinese person is put in total charge of bringing his or her company into China, what is this person to do? Can he or she tell the owner “hey, wait a minute, I left China at 15 years old, and I am an engineer, not a marketer and not a lawyer?” He or she could, but is this going to happen? Of course not. This person instead is delighted to have been essentially handed an entire country to run and this person is going to run with it. So this person acts like starting and running a foreign company in China is a piece of cake.

Now I would not have a problem if these companies simply went with their Chinese “experts” and did not call us until they want us to scrape them off the floor. We have gotten a million such calls from companies that have gone into China with just their Chinese VP giving the legal advice and our response to their problems is nearly always the same: “Your chances are not good, but for a lot of money we can try. Oh, and the next time you go into a foreign country, you might want to consider hiring someone who actually knows what the f— they are doing.” Okay, so I’ve never really said that, but darn, I have really wanted to.

But now that Americans are getting “smarter” and word has gotten out on how badly other American companies have fared by going into China the wrong way, they are starting to call us before it is so late that all I can tell them is how badly they have done things. And one would think that would be good, right? Well, not always.

For you see, some of these companies want us to “oversee” their trusted Chinese VP and that is where the problems lie. We have had a number of these in the last year and they tend to be really bad news. I am going to explain some of these, but be vague enough, and mix the facts enough so that there is no way anyone can identify themselves. In other words, these stories are all based on facts, but any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. The bottom line on all of these is that the American company (and in one case British company) start out all worried about how my law firm’s involvement might be seen as “stepping on the toes” of their Chinese VP.

I think Locke was an inspired pick as U.S. ambassador to China and I am confident he will do a fine job in that role (just as he has done in his previous governmental roles). I just hope that he ends up being judged by what he does and not on his ethnicity. Is that too much to ask?

What do you think?

  • Shilpa

    I think you raise a number of valid points, many of which I have to admit that I had not even considered. I had actually just assumed that Gary Locke was fluent in Chinese, which in hindsight I now realize was absurd. I agree with you that is right for the position, but I also agree with you that his skin color and his ethnicity tell us nothing about his knowledge of China. Thanks for making me think.

  • http://annefleetwood.wordpress.com Andrew

    Gary Locke is appointed as the UNITED STATES ambassador to China, so what really matters is whether he can represent AMERICAN interests well. The degree of his “Chineseness” is a secondary matter. And I wish him the best as he takes on this challenging new role.
    As an aside and perhaps to add oil to the fire (火上加油) of the debate, note that his last name is the anglicized “Locke” instead of the “Lok” adopted by recent Chinese immigrants. It speaks to the pressure felt by his grandfather to assimilate into American society at the time of migration.
    On handing off the entirety of a company’s operations in China to a VP solely because the VP is ethnically Chinese, that is just stupid tokenism. Even an engineer who was born, raised and educated in China is not competent in Chinese legal matters. Only a qualified Chinese attorney can provide the necessary professional advice.

  • John

    Though consulting with an attorney is totally necessary, I think pointing a Chinese VP to exploit Chinese market makes some sense. At least he/she gets some insights about and more importantly, connections in China, which will give your company some leverage and advantages over your competitors.

  • Hua Qiao

    Wholeheartedly agree on the absurdity of an ABC (American Born Chinese) expected to be effective in China. I have Hong Kong reared colleagues with me in BJ who find many Chinese business practices as foreign as I do. We use the term “UFOs, meaning observing a scenario or event that makes no sense and appears to come from a different planet.
    Although appearance and language skills might help a little, the ability to read the situation and understand what is really going on is something that even a Hong Kong or Taiwanese person would struggle with.

  • http://ifofor.com 如果•或者

    And I wish him the best as he takes on this challenging new role.

  • Chris

    Im with you all the way day, Dan. I am just as much Italian as Gary Locke is Chinese. It is therefore logical that I should be heading up our company’s Italian operations instead of our China operations. John Huntsman was more “Chinese” than Gary Locke, if “Chinese” means having an understanding of China and speaking the language.
    A huge part of this perception comes from the Chinese themselves. The believe that since they are “different” from all the other barbarians that roam this planet, that it is logical that any ethnic looking Chinese shares their values beliefs and customs. Gary Locke is 100% American, as much ethnically as I am Italian (2nd generation). I am 100% American and believe in and espouse American values of equality, justice and representative government for all.
    It is also of note of how any Chinese, now learning that Amb Locke does not speak Chinese, carries his own bag and gets his own coffee (equality, even amongst elected or appointed officials) are disappointed. I sense a feeling that they believe he has “sold out” his “Chineseness” and they feel a sense of pity on him.
    What makes you American is not your ethnicity, but your value system. Same in China. What makes you ‘Chinese” (mainland Chinese) is your value system, not your blood or skin color. What makes you Taiwanese is your shared value system. What makes you Hong Kongese is your shared value system……..not your ethnicity.

  • Twofish

    Harris: In spite of this Chinese person’s lack of ANY legal training or business training, this person is typically chosen to be the lead person to start up operations in China.
    1) Knowledge of the law is only one of the skills that you need to have in order to manage a business, and it’s not the most important skill. Managers need to be generalists and to be able to manage various skills of which legal matters are only one of them. If you hire a lawyer to be a manager, then they will understand the law, but they may not understand marketing, engineering, finance and management. If you hire an outsider, then they probably won’t be up to speed on internal corporate politics.
    2) Someone that has worked for several years in a company, has business training. One thing about businesses is that it tends to look down on book learning and up on practice skills. If someone has worked a number of years in a company, then they have real world business experience.
    3) Who else are you going to get? In businesses, you usually can’t get the world’s best China manager, because you can’t afford them, and if they haven’t been working with them for a long time you likely can’t trust them. If you have someone with a Chinese background, they may know next to nothing about China, but they could know more than anyone else you can get. They may be able to only speak Chinese at a third grade level, but that may be better than anything else.
    Also, there is the matter that even if they know nothing about China, they may be the only person willing to work in China. If you go to a meeting, and ask for volunteers to start the China business and only one person raises their hand, you pretty much have to choose them.
    —- Oh, and the next time you go into a foreign country, you might want to consider hiring someone who actually knows what the f— they are doing.”
    You might, but then you find that you can’t afford them, and even if you could, they’ll likely run off the millisecond some other company has a better offer. If you go into a foreign country, you *WILL* mess up. The important thing is to not to avoid messing up, but to make sure that you don’t mess up in a fatal way, and that even after you mess up, you end up making money.
    Experience is vital, and if a company wants to set up shop in a foreign country, you need to hire your own people. If you hire someone outside, and they do things perfectly, then that’s great, but you end up having no control over them. If you hire someone on the inside, and they totally mess up, then this is part of the learning curve for your company, so you get something out of this. If you wait for all of the i’s to get dotted and the t’s to get crossed before doing anything, then nothing will get done.
    Also, the mistake is to put one person in charge. Unless you can’t afford it, if you want to do new operations, you really need to put together a team of people.
    Harris: For you see, some of these companies want us to “oversee” their trusted Chinese VP and that is where the problems lie.
    That’s a seriously bad idea because you are lawyers and not business consultants or managers. You don’t have the authority to oversee a manager. It’s also a seriously bad idea to have someone in a staff position like legal be in charge of line management because that can bias the legal advice. For example, the manager could be in a position where they have to decide whether or not to start a VIE or go forward with a deal without a signed contract.
    In that case, you can and should tell them that legally it’s a seriously bad idea, but the decision as to whether to do it or not is more than a matter of law, and if you are in a position where you have to even think about the non-legal aspects of the situation that can compromise the legal advice.

  • Twofish

    The problem is that some of us are both Chinese and American. It’s not true that you should take some random ethnic Chinese and assume that they are going to be decent at working in China. On the other hand, you shouldn’t make the opposite assumption that every American-born Chinese is a banana and has no particular skills that would be useful in doing business in China.
    Chris: It is also of note of how any Chinese, now learning that Amb Locke does not speak Chinese, carries his own bag and gets his own coffee (equality, even amongst elected or appointed officials) are disappointed. I sense a feeling that they believe he has “sold out” his “Chineseness” and they feel a sense of pity on him.
    In fact, people are reacting very positively to the fact that he carries his own luggage.
    Chris: I am 100% American and believe in and espouse American values of equality, justice and representative government for all.
    The problem with this view is that it implies that people that have multiple identities (like me) are somehow less American.
    Chris: What makes you American is not your ethnicity, but your value system. Same in China. What makes you ‘Chinese” (mainland Chinese) is your value system, not your blood or skin color. What makes you Taiwanese is your shared value system. What makes you Hong Kongese is your shared value system……..not your ethnicity.
    Actually what makes you American is your passport, but that’s another issue.
    The trouble is that I just don’t fit in your nice neat categories. I have about six or seven different identities which I can flip through, and in the cause of being “Chinese” it’s not that much of an issue of “value system.” I know of people that have radically different values who are Chinese.

  • Twofish

    Also it’s pretty simple. Ask him how he sees himself, and whatever he thinks of himself as, that’s fine.
    One other thing. Most Chinese will assume that your typical American-born Chinese speaks Chinese badly and has no particular connection to Chinese culture, because that happens to be true for most ABC’s. When I’m in Chinese social circles, people invariably assume that I’m *not* an ABC because I can speak Mandarin fluently.

  • anon

    Thanks Dan for another good post and some interested links referenced within.
    I’ve known Mr. Locke for a number of years and had the opportunity to work with him commercially while he was a partner at a large Seattle law firm between his time as Governor of WA state and service in the Obama administration. Part of my experience included traveling in China with him during this time as well. During these occasions, I simply marveled at the extraordinarily high level respect given to him by the various Chinese business and government officials with whom we met. Candidly, these ‘pro-Locke’ sentiments rivaled only that of one of Mr. Locke’s democratic political events during his terms as Governor.
    During meetings in China, I was perhaps more impressed with the way Mr. Locke weaved his own personal China narrative into whatever particular conversation was at hand. Whether it was informal talk at the dinner table, or in his prepared remarks at a signing ceremony, the China narrative was present, with great effect. I daresay that Mr. Locke excelled at making the China narrative part of his personal and political brand.
    Now, Mr. Locke will have a chance leverage his China narrative back in the public sector, after his stint at Commerce. (Almost an accidental Commerce Secretary if you’ll recall…..Locke, a HRC supporter until late in the primary, was only Obama’s nominee after first choice Richardson backed out due to a brewing scandal) Personally, I think he’ll find some degree of success, even in the face of a very difficult period for US-China relations. Also, judging by the admittedly anecdotal evidence of phone calls from China acquaintances (as opposed to friends/partners that I speak with regularly) since the Ambassador Locke nomination, my read of opinions in China is that they are trending high for Mr. Locke. I am certainly not alone in wishing him well in his new role. Who knows how the China narrative will work out ultimately in this new role, or what changes we’ll see in the geopolitical landscape…who knows indeed, but if things go a certain way, I would not be surprised to see the ambitious Mr. Locke in the 2016 Presidential primaries.

  • Richard

    Mr. Locke is a hardworking and effective public servant. But the ethnicity of the ambassador to China does matter and it was obviously a consideration within the Obama administration. Just imagine the Chinese reaction if the U.S. ambassador to China was of Japanese or Korean ancestry! That would be a non-starter and it’s almost impossible to anyone of non-Chinese Asian descent serving in that position. Is that fair? Not really, but that’s the way it is.

  • Twofish

    Richard – Just imagine the Chinese reaction if the U.S. ambassador to China was of Japanese or Korean ancestry!
    Honestly, I don’t think anyone would care much.
    If a Japanese-American took the position that they were 100% white American and there is nothing Japanese about them other than their parents, I think most Chinese would accept that.
    Now if you had a Japanese-American ambassador to China give the Gary Locke speech and talk about how important their Japanese heritage was, then this would cause huge problems but there is something different. (i.e. someone that was white that started talking about how wonderful Japanese culture was while in China would also cause incidents).
    For Koreans, it would be less of a problem. There are a lot of ethnic Koreans in China, and if people in China don’t have a problem with a Party Secretary of the People’s Liberation Army (Zhao Nanqi/Cho Nam-Gi) being ethnic Korean, I doubt being US Ambassador would cause problems.
    Something that is important to point out is that different groups have different rules. In particular, Chinese tend to be much more accepting of “mixed identities” than Japanese. It’s possible to be both “Chinese” and “American”, but among Japanese-Americans that I know, there is this idea among Japanese that if you are “American” then you really aren’t “Japanese.” Chinese tend to think in terms of networks, whereas Japanese tend to think in terms of boxes.
    The result of this is that Japanese-Americans that I know of tend to think of themselves as 100% American with no connection to Japan. (Again, I’m not Japanese, so if what I said was wildly incorrect, please feel free to correct me.)

  • Frankie Fook-lun Leung

    who is the best adviser to American or foreign companies in China. As rightly said, knowledge and expertise is better than ethnicity. I have advised enough American companies in Asia and Asian companies in America. First, I have seen Mainland Chinese who are from China and are relatively sophisticated in western practices gave wrong advice. Why? Some Mainland Chinese fail to comprehend that the so-called accepted Chinese practices can lead to violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act provisions. Secondly, I have seen company executives whether Asian or Caucasian being completely irrelevant make blunders. They are bulls in the China shop. It is wrong to stereotype Asian Americans as inapt to advise their companies. In many situations, many aware of their parent company’s modus operandi or corporate governance structure is important. My recommendation is to form a team of different backgrounds instead of relying on one individual. A company needs two types of expertise both of which are important: the local knowledge and the company’s operational style. To use a cross-border international bank’s slogan: the world’s local bank.

  • Frankie Leung

    Gary Locke is a diplomat. He needs not be a linguist nor ethnic Chinese to carry out his duties.