Gary Locke, the former US secretary of commerce, arrived in Beijing last Friday, starting his term as the new US ambassador to China. This senior official seemed to take a very low profile, carrying the luggage on his own without lots of attendants and security personnel, as did his family members.
Taking an ordinary flight, carrying his luggage in person, refusing to take the special car, buying coffee with coupons - all of this low-profile behavior have triggered heated discussions among Chinese public. Locke's lofty position as a senior official contrasted sharply with his unassuming behaviors.
Actually, it is a typical case of cross-cultural misunderstanding. After seeing many Chinese officials with less important jobs have police clearing the way or subordinates holding umbrellas for them when they go out, people regard it extraordinary for Locke not to make a big deal out of his arrival and to carry his luggage personally.
In fact, it is normal for officials to lead a low-profile life in other countries. However, there's a certain irony here. Locke's behavior may result from his personal character, but he has to keep a low profile to hold onto his official career.
It is said that in some countries it will cause a mighty uproar if an official asks his secretary to make a cup of tea for an official. Waiting to buy coffee in a queue is a deliberate display in itself.
These low-profile behaviors are guaranteed by a rather high-profile official culture and system.
But we don't have the pressures needed to make officials keep a low profile. To make it worse, some unreasonable practices contribute to officials' abuse of power, such as the purchase of luxury cars for officials or letting planes that carry officials fly first.
Because of its rarity, Locke's ordinary behavior becomes extraordinary to us.