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Provocative Chinese journalist pokes US ambassador

Eric Piermont / AFP - Getty Images file

China Central Televison (CCTV) anchor Rui Chenggang speaks during a CCTV televised debate focusing on China's growth at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Jan 29, 2010.

BEIJING – If new U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke thought he had escaped the tough, sometimes embarrassing questions of political punditry by moving to Beijing, he was in for a rude awakening Thursday.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Dalian, Locke was taking questions from the audience when CCTV business host Rui Chenggang stood up and asked him, “I hear you flew here coach. Is that a reminder that U.S. owes China money?”

The question was in reference to the swathes of coverage Locke received for his apparent humble and low-maintenance comportment since taking the ambassadorship – a characteristic not always shared by even the most junior Chinese government officials. He has gotten a lot of attention in the Chinese press for flying economy class on trips and purchasing his own coffee at Starbucks.

His provocative questioner, Rui, is no stranger to media attention himself. He was dubbed by Fortune Magazine as the “Lou Dobbs of China” and was profiled by the New York Times two years ago. Some have hailed him as a standard-bearer for a new, self-assured China, but others paint him as an opportunistic self-promoter extremely cozy with China’s Communist Party.

Regardless of his true affiliations or desire for publicity, there can be no denying that Rui, 33, has a history of bold and sometimes inflammatory positions.

Headline grabber
We at NBC News first reported on Rui in 2007 when he led a high-profile campaign online calling for the removal of a Starbucks burrowed away in the middle of Beijing.

Chinafotopress / Getty Images Contributor

Gary Locke, the new United States Ambassador to China, talks to the media during a press conference at the Ambassador Residence on Aug. 14, 2011 in Beijing, China.

Writing in his blog at the time, Rui argued that the coffee company’s store "undermined the Forbidden City's solemnity and trampled over Chinese culture."

Following intense discussion online by Chinese netizens and pressure from the government, Starbucks was forced to close its Forbidden City location.

In recent years, Rui has successfully injected himself into economic and social conversations here in China, most prominently perhaps in 2010 during President Barack Obama’s visit to Asia.

At the G-20 Summit in Seoul, Obama said he wanted to leave the last question to the South Korean press. Rui stood up and cheekily said to Obama, “I’m actually Chinese, but I think I get to represent the entire Asia – we’re one family here in this part of the world.” 
The move – and the claim that he represented the “entire Asia” – quickly caused an uproar among the Chinese  – some ridiculed it, while others cheered it.

Most recently, Rui also sparked a debate about Chinese wealthy and their penchant for luxury goods like Hermès, describing the items as “strong weapons for China’s nouveau riche and socialites to show off their wealth.” 

Rui Chenggang asks President Barack Obama a question at the G-20 Summit in Seoul - even though the president opened the question to South Korean journalists.

Rui’s words and a questionnaire he posted on his Twitter-like Weibo account, titled “The Ten Most Vulgar Luxury Brands,” also drew immediate attention online. Some of it was very much bemused – as many wondered how a man who according to the New York Times wears Zegna suits and drives a Jaguar to work could possibly be the man who would lead such a crusade against luxury.

Humble civil servant or savvy politician? 
All of which brings us to back to Thursday morning in Dalian. To his credit, Locke seemed to answer Rui’s belligerent question with composure, describing the economy-class plane tickets as a State Department standard. He also noted that, "As a very easy-going person, I believe I'm a good representative of the way Americans do things."

Locke continued by saying, "I hope this type of openness will help Chinese and Americans to know more about each other, break down barriers and dispel misunderstandings.”

Taking to his Weibo account later Thursday, Rui responded to Locke’s comments by noting that Locke was once a U.S. governor and thus – unlike many Chinese officials – savvy to the ways of proper communication and public relations:

“Gary Locke always spares no effort at seizing every occasion and opportunity to publicize American values. He only mentions the good sides of the U.S. and avoids mentioning the bad sides. This is his job. He is probably the most willing to showcase his own and is good at doing so as an ambassador. His public behaviors, from using a backpack to buying coffee, from taking a van (instead of a car) to taking economy class, are all accurately received, photographed, spread and discussed. He knows how the media works because he used to run for governor.”

His statement immediately drew more than 20,000 comments from other Weibo users, both in support and critical of his stance toward the ambassador.

Two weeks ago, many of us in the American press corps in China were invited by the American Embassy to an informal gathering to meet some of the new transitioning press attaches joining the Beijing embassy. To our surprise, the ambassador appeared at the event and took a couple minutes to talk to the group informally as a whole before mingling with the gathered journalists.

Throughout that admittedly limited experience, Locke’s self-characterization as “easy-going” seemed justified. Absent the cameras and microphones, he joked about flying to the event in economy class and having spare Starbucks coupons to loan to journalists interested in getting a discounted cup of joe.

Rui may have a point about the savvy communication skills of America’s politicians, but in this case his impertinent attitude toward a foreign dignitary may have backfired on him.

Instead Rui may have inadvertently accentuated a slow-developing, but nevertheless aggressive position China has taken both politically and journalistically towards the United States in recent years.