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America might just have a secret diplomatic weapon in China.
Mona Locke, the glamorous former TV journalist who is married to U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke, has become a favorite of the Chinese fashion press. After less than a year in China, she has been featured in full fashion shoots and in-depth interviews in the Chinese versions of Marie Claire and Elle magazines in recent months, and has one coming up for Vogue China. While the pictorials focus on her striking good looks and style, the interviews are far more personal, delving into her private life with questions about balancing work and family, and queries about how she met and married her powerful husband.
The mother of three, who gave up her journalism career when her husband ran for governor of Washington, said her experience with China’s fashion press has allowed her to better understand the country while connecting with its women. Locke says her outreach to China’s readers via the fashion press is not about traditional diplomacy or presenting a particular image of America. Rather, she has an opportunity to reach Chinese women on issues that affect women globally.
“I’m not so concerned about the appearance of U.S. officials in China, because I think you are who you are,” says Locke. “I think that doing these magazine shoots and being interviewed is a great opportunity to really just connect with the people of China.”
The magazines offer a chance “to talk about our culture, our beliefs and our freedoms,” she adds.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. Writers of the features have compared Locke to an “Asian Mrs. Kennedy,” while readers see her as a role model for women. Locke, who like her husband is Chinese American, says she thinks the family presents an intriguing picture here.
“They really want to get to know us,” she says. “There’s a curiosity about us — we look Chinese, we don’t speak Chinese, so who are these people? What’s important to them?”
Locke’s own story and decisions regarding family and career have struck a nerve with Chinese women. She had a successful career in journalism, working as a reporter with KING 5 television in Seattle. She describes an “early midlife crisis” in her 30s when she gave up that career, moved and had a baby, all within six months. It’s a series of decisions that nearly all women agonize over at some point, and Chinese women, faced with fast-changing standards of gender equality and economic realities, ponder it as much as anyone.
Interviewers seem to focus on this particular subject with Locke rather than any obvious political topics involving China and the United States. They want to know how she met her husband, why she stayed single past her 20s and why she decided to give up her career for family. It’s this common issue that connects with readers as well. And the resulting stories are far more likely to reach real Chinese people than any heavy policy discussions or lectures.
Xu Jia, a businesswoman in Beijing who read one of the articles, says she thinks Locke is a great success story, in part because of the choice she made to leave her career.
“What is a successful woman?” asks Xu. “I personally think success is a woman who can balance family and career and be happy. She did it.
“In the critical time when she had to choose, she chose to support her husband,” she adds. “At that time, she lost the career she loved so much, but she got paid back more later — happiness in the rest of her life and endless love from her husband. As a woman, what else can she ask for?”
This kind of praise for the wife of America’s emissary in China could be tricky but hasn’t become an issue yet. Ambassador Gary Locke, who was U.S. Commerce Secretary before taking the post in Beijing last year, caused a very public stir on his arrival, mainly for acting like an ordinary person. Chinese Internet users seized on accounts of Locke traveling in economy class and buying his own coffee as evidence that U.S. officials are less corrupt than their more isolated Chinese counterparts.
Many hailed the ambassador, who drew particular attention as the first Chinese American in the post, as an example of how government officials should conduct themselves.
In response, official Chinese media accused him of playing a role, saying he was getting too much positive press.
“It is bizarre and twisted to regard these acts as evidence of cleanness in U.S. politics,” the nationalistic Global Times newspaper wrote in a September editorial. “A U.S. ambassador should devote himself to the relationship between China and the U.S. rather than play a role in Chinese media. A U.S. ambassador becoming a political star in China cannot be interpreted as U.S. respect for China.”
His wife’s fashion press publicity hasn’t drawn that sort of criticism. Readers and Internet users have praised her as a role model, but perhaps because the stories have been published in the fashion press, they haven’t created any controversy.
This is not the first time Locke has quietly stolen the spotlight. In 2011, the online news outlet Politico.com highlighted her with a story about a state dinner, asking if she was the best-dressed person at the event and hinting that she had outdone First Lady Michelle Obama with her gown.
Not that her husband is any slouch in the style stakes. He’s joined his wife in the pages of China’s fashion press, appearing in a feature story this month in China’s GQ. In the multipage profile, Locke talks about work and style, everything from cuff links to dreaming big in business and life. The interview does miss one important question, however: How did he meet his famous wife?