No nonsense ... US ambassador Gary Locke.

No nonsense ... US ambassador Gary Locke. Photo: AP

BEIJING: The word on the street, whether in Washington or Beijing, is that the United States is on the decline and China is on the ascent. But it has taken nothing more than a cup of coffee and a backpack to show that US officials can still evoke awe, respect and envy among Chinese, even if unwittingly.

A photograph taken on Friday of the new US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, buying coffee with his six-year-old daughter and carrying a black backpack at a Starbucks in Seattle Airport, has gone viral on the internet in China.

The seemingly banal scene has bewildered and disarmed Chinese because they are used to seeing their own officials indulge in privileged lives often propped up by graft, bribery and lavish expense accounts.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former Washington state governor, speaks as US President Barack Obama looks on.

Obama's man in China ... US ambassador Gary Locke, who was the former Commerce Secretary, speaking as the US President looked on.

Locke and his family were waiting to fly to Beijing when a Chinese-American businessman took the photo and posted it on Sina Weibo, a popular Chinese social networking site. It has been reposted more than 40,000 times and has generated thousands of comments.

State news organisations have weighed in with favourable articles about Locke, a former governor of Washington state and US President, Barack Obama's first commerce secretary, who on Tuesday presented his credentials to China's President, Hu Jintao, to start his posting.

The first impression from the Starbucks episode has been bolstered by another photograph that shows Locke, his wife, Mona, and their three children carrying their own luggage after landing at Beijing Capital International Airport; Chinese who saw them then spread the word that the family had gotten into an anonymous minivan because a formal sedan that had been sent to pick them up was too small.

''To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,'' Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote in an article on Wednesday.

Cheng Li, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who studies Chinese elite politics, said in an email: ''Ambassador Locke's photo contrasts sharply with the image of the Chinese officials who often live in a secret, insulated, very privileged fashion. This may explain why some Chinese leaders tend to be out of touch with the real life of the ordinary Chinese people - members of the urban middle class, not to mention the farmers and migrant workers.''

Chinese fed up with self-indulgent behaviour by officials often post photographs on the internet of bureaucrats being chauffeured around in black Audis, buying Louis Vuitton handbags for wives or mistresses and playing golf or strolling on beaches.

In November 2009, President Obama, on his first trip to China, also inadvertently set off a firestorm of commentary when he stepped out of a plane in Shanghai holding a black umbrella during a shower. Chinese officials often have aides hold umbrellas above their heads.

Chen asked in his China Daily commentary on Locke: ''How could someone who holds the rank of ambassador to a big country not have someone carry his luggage, and not use a chauffeured limousine? In China even a township chief, which is not really that high up in the hierarchy, will have a chauffeur and a secretary to carry his bag.''

He concluded: ''Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke.''

To many Chinese, what has been most noteworthy about Locke, 61, barring his coffee-buying habits, is that he is the first Chinese-American ambassador in Beijing.

His ancestral home is in Taishan County, Guangdong Province, from which many people have emigrated to the United States.

The New York Times