Obama's Man in China: Ambassador Jon Huntsman

Jon Huntsman Jr. had scarcely landed in Beijing as the new U.S. ambassador before he was imperiously summoned for a tongue-lashing. Washington was getting ready to place import duties on Chinese-made tires, and the Commerce Ministry's senior brass wanted him to know they weren't happy about it. "They called me in using language in no uncertain terms," he recalls. "They asked, 'Why would you ever want to deploy an atom bomb in a trade dispute?' " But the 49-year-old ambassador kept his cool. He had sat through plenty of similar histrionics from 2001 to 2004 as deputy U.S. trade representative. "You see every different style and type of theatrics in negotiations," he says. "So you're prepared for anything."

But there were triumphs along with the trials in Huntsman's first day on the job. Later that afternoon, decked out in running shoes, khakis, and a tieless shirt with rolled-up sleeves, he welcomed a crowd of nearly 70 Chinese and foreign reporters in the garden of his new residence, greeting them in excellent Mandarin. He talked in both Chinese and English about changing Sino-U.S. relations and introduced his wife and three of their seven children. Asha, their 3-year-old adopted daughter from India, kept gleefully punching the microphone stand. To top off the event, Huntsman threw open the doors of the residence and invited the unruly gathering inside. "Take a look around and feel at home!" the beaming ambassador said. He even allowed media to interview daughter Gracie Mei, 10, who was adopted by the Huntsmans after being found abandoned in a vegetable market outside Shanghai. "I told her she was raised in America and coming back to China and is a bridge between China and the United States," Huntsman said.

His guests were bowled over. The new ambassador's openness and hospitality presented a stunning contrast to the tightly wrapped style of his predecessor, Clark T. (Sandy) Randt, an old George W. Bush frat brother from Yale who had been Washington's longest-serving ambassador in Beijing. "The picture-perfect event [was] more like a campaign stop," the Beijing-based business magazine Caijing reported on its Web site. In fact that's exactly why Huntsman is in Beijing: to rally Chinese support for the Obama agenda. His skill at drumming up enthusiasm was a big reason that President Obama crossed party lines to choose Huntsman—who not only is a registered Republican but was the national co-chairman for John McCain during the 2008 race—to run one of the most crucial U.S. diplomatic posts in the world. As the phenomenally popular governor of Utah (he was re-elected in November 2008 with 78 percent of the vote), Huntsman showed he knows how to work a crowd. And 1.3 billion people is nothing if not a crowd.

Huntsman is likely to need all the political skills he can muster. With China on the verge of unseating Japan as the world's second-largest economy, Washington and Beijing have begun a massive overhaul of their relationship. During Obama's visit to China this week, his message is that Americans welcome China's rise, and hope Beijing will join in helping solve global problems (and by the way, please keep buying those U.S. Treasury bills). Meanwhile the president has instructed his man in Beijing to keep things "positive, collaborative, and comprehensive" between the two countries. The world has changed radically since America established diplomatic ties with the isolated communist regime in Beijing three decades ago. "The days of patronizing, the days of table pounding, the days of America wins every negotiation—those days are over," says Huntsman, "Today we approach the negotiating table with mutual respect and, maybe more than ever, a defined sense of our shared interests."

Handling the rise of China may be the biggest challenge facing Washington today. To solve practically any major problem—whether it's the worsening war in Afghanistan, the nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, or climate change—requires enlisting Beijing's cooperation. And that task demands extraordinary powers of persuasion, to show China's leaders that their country's interests dovetail (or at least don't clash) with those of the United States. Obama is working on it, of course, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and swarms of envoys and officials, but it's Huntsman's job to be the president's on-the-ground voice in conveying the message to Chinese officials, and his eyes and ears in assessing their responses.

His decision to accept the ambassadorship says a lot about Huntsman. This spring, Obama's 2008 campaign manager David Plouffe was quoted as saying the only Republican who made him feel "a wee bit queasy" about the 2012 race was Huntsman. Soon afterward, Obama made his offer to Huntsman, who reportedly was only a few weeks away from launching his own exploratory presidential campaign committee. Huntsman didn't hesitate—although by accepting the job he effectively took himself out of the 2012 race (2016 may be a whole different story). "I now know why they built the Oval Office," he says. "It's an impossible room in which to say 'no.' "

Political pros praised Obama's move as a masterstroke. In the name of bipartisanship, the appointment eliminated a potentially dangerous opponent—and recruited a uniquely qualified diplomat. "Keep your friends close and your enemies in China," cracked Republican strategist Mark McKinnon. But Huntsman couldn't resist the offer: China had fascinated him since childhood. One day in 1971, when he was 11 and his father (plastics magnate Jon Huntsman Sr.) was serving as special assistant to President Richard Nixon, the boy accompanied Jon Sr. to the White House. Henry Kissinger was there, preparing to embark on a hush-hush mission, and Jon Jr. was allowed to carry the national-security adviser's briefcase to a waiting car. The boy asked Kissinger where he was going, and Huntsman recalls the reply: "Please don't tell anyone. I'm going to China."

Kissinger's secret visit led to the historic Sino-U.S. rapprochement in 1972—and set the boy to dreaming of seeing China firsthand. Huntsman eventually got there, but he took a roundabout route: first he dropped out of high school in the '70s to play keyboard with a rock band, then he spent two years living as a Mormon missionary—and learning Mandarin Chinese—in Taiwan, and finally he landed a spot as a young White House aide. (He eventually earned a B.A. in international politics at Penn in 1987.)

He arrived in Beijing for the first time as part of the advance team for Ronald Reagan's April 1984 visit to China, and accompanied Reagan to Beijing's Great Hall of the People to meet Deng Xiaoping ("a simply electric character, very charismatic," the ambassador recalls). "To see these two great heads of state interact and lay out the early framework of the relationship—and to be a fly on the wall—left a very deep impression," Huntsman says. "You could just see these tectonic shifts. The plates were moving ever so subtly at that point, but you just knew this was going to change the world someday."

Huntsman has been shuttling back and forth to Asia ever since as a U.S. trade envoy, as an executive with his father's Huntsman Corp., and as U.S. ambassador to Singapore. He was back home in Utah in 2004, before becoming governor, when a Chinese delegation visited the state and met with local industry leaders. By way of introduction, Huntsman told them merely that he was "running the family business"—a term that in China often means a mom-and-pop enterprise. One of the organizers of the trip hastened to advise the visitors that the company was "not as small as you might think," adding that Jon Sr. is enshrined in the Plastics Hall of Fame as father of the styrene-foam "clamshell" food container that is nearly as ubiquitous in China as in the United States. "Light bulbs went off in the minds of the Chinese," says a source who was present but requested anonymity because he "didn't want to suggest the Chinese were slow on the uptake." In fact, the multinational Huntsman conglomerate has made the ambassador's father the richest man in Utah, and by some calculations the 47th richest man in the world.

Jon Jr.'s fascination with China continued after he was elected governor in 2004. He publicly declared Mandarin Chinese a "strategic" language, vital to America's future, and Utah became the first state to pass legislation to include it in public-school curricula. Surprisingly many Chinese officials return from visits to America saying their fondest memories are of Utah. Sharing meals with Mormon families and being serenaded by American schoolchildren in Chinese seems to make a big impression on travelers from the People's Republic. "They said, 'If a state governor can have kids singing in our own language, it's even better than traditional diplomacy,' " says Shawn Hu, a former Utah state trade representative who helped arrange numerous Utah trips for Chinese delegations.

But the love feast goes only so far. China's leaders remain wary of U.S. pressure on human rights. They were heartened back in February when Hillary Clinton, who was about to visit China for the first time as secretary of state, said human rights would not "interfere" with agreements on global issues like the financial crisis and climate change. Nevertheless, it's on the agenda for Obama's visit. "He wants to broaden the issue to include gender rights, child labor, religious and ethnic freedoms," says Brookings Institution Sinologist David Shambaugh. "Human rights are a universal issue," says Huntsman, who has promised "robust engagement" on the subject. "They transcend economics. You cannot delink rule of law and civil society and our belief in individual liberties from who we are as Americans." He says it's a U.S. priority to "systematize and regularize" the Sino-U.S. human-rights dialogue that has faltered in recent years, and he predicts progress by the end of this year. He also confirms to NEWSWEEK that he and senior embassy officers have been meeting privately with "human-rights groups and people interested in the rule of law who're interested in participating in such a dialogue."

But much of the ambassador's time is spent winning support for America. He visited the city of Guangzhou in southern Guangdong province last month to break ground for a new U.S. consulate. After hyperkinetic lion-dancers finished their welcoming gyrations, and the drumming and cymbal-clashing died down, Huntsman greeted the crowd in the local Cantonese dialect: "How are you? How is everyone?" Onlookers applauded in evident delight. Then Huntsman switched to Mandarin Chinese. "Excuse my Cantonese," he said. "I don't speak it very well. I shall learn from all of you." Deputy Guangdong governor Wan Qingliang was so charmed by the display of modesty that he postponed a scheduled trip to Beijing in order to gatecrash an evening reception and schmooze with Huntsman some more.

Does Huntsman plan to move on to the White House someday, like that other U.S. head of mission to China, George H.W. Bush? For now, the ambassador refuses to talk about 2016. A Chinese journalist in Guangzhou asked him point-blank last month: "Who would get the credit if you do a good job as ambassador and go on to run for president in 2016? You or the man who selected you, President Barack Obama?" Huntsman replied with a toothy smile—"Thank you for that last treacherous question, which I won't answer because I don't do politics here."

He may not be running for office right now, but there's no better word for what he does than politics. In his spare time he rides his Shanghai-built bicycle through the streets and alleys near his residence, sometimes with little Asha on board, and stops to talk with Chinese passersby. And he spends much of his time traveling around China, making friends with governors and grassroots citizens alike, stressing that Chinese and Americans must "learn from each other." In Guangzhou last month, he visited a neighborhood center where physically handicapped students learn English. In the recreation room, he played table tennis with a female student. "I haven't done this for 10 years. I played ping pong as a young man but only began practicing again a few days ago. I'm rusty," he told his diminutive adversary. Then he added, "I will learn from you."

Join the Discussion