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.
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?