President Obama announced his new pick for commerce secretary late last month, and the decision was immediately hailed by Chinese state media. The cursory reviews of the facts presented in many of these accounts seem to imply that the appointment of former Washington Governor Gary Locke would benefit the Chinese in bilateral trade relations by mere virtue of his ancestry. Locke is a third-generation Chinese-American who can trace his roots back to Guangdong and Hong Kong, and is married to another Chinese-American, broadcast journalist Mona Lee. 

In much Chinese thinking, this translates to undying loyalty to the motherland. The Chinese are as proud and nationalistic a race as they come, a trait that can alternately inspire fondness and frustration. Cultural elements tend to keep Chinese immigrants more tied into their heritage than many of the other myriad American immigrants, some of whom assimilate so much by the second generation that most of the families’ original cultural identities are lost entirely.

Locke obviously has good reason to further improve relations with China, America’s third-largest export market, and is well-positioned to do it. A major domestic campaign underway here is pushing consumption in the name of nationalism, despite the national tendency to sock it away for a rainy day. (This can be illustrated by an incident yesterday, during which I caught a glimpse of the balance of my Chinese colleague’s bank account on an ATM screen. Despite making 3,000 yuan a month to my roughly quintuple that amount, her savings is about ten times the size of mine – and she likely has a child to support.) However, Locke’s first priorities upon his confirmation will likely center on the pending free trade agreements in Latin America, specifically Colombia and Panama, before he can turn his full attention elsewhere.

While the material benefits for China won’t be evident for a while yet, the sense of pride in his accomplishment is justified. If confirmed, Locke will become the first Chinese American secretary of commerce, and the second Chinese American in Obama’s cabinet, joining Energy Secretary Steven Chu.