Chen Zhu: The American Media's New Chinese Poster Boy

Once again, a major outlet of the American media is fawning over the latest "rising star" in the Chinese government. He is someone who doesn't quite fit our perception of a Chinese government official dressed in drab colors, sporting a bowl-cut, and spewing Maoist maxims from the seat of his bicycle. Rather, he's a modern sort of fellow with dapper Western business attire and a smart haircut who speaks colloquial English with just a hint of an accent. In other words, someone like us.

Considering that the generally left-leaning media often promotes the virtues of multiculturalism and an appreciation of those things that make us different, it seems a bit hypocritical to heap praise on a Chinese leader based on his Western qualities rather than those things that make him uniquely Chinese.

Perhaps you remember last year's favored Chinese-guy-that's-not-really-a-Chinese guy, Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation. His firm manages about $200 billion of the nearly $2 trillion that the Chinese have invested in the U.S. economy. Gao famously warned Americans in a December '08 interview with the Atlantic that we should "be nice to the countries who lend you money."

He sounded a tad threatening, but we shouldn't worry; the Atlantic says he is really one of us. The personification of a Red rags to riches, Horatio Alger, up-by-your-combat-bootstraps-capitalist. Sounding like People magazine, the Atlantic went on to say that Gao is, "55, fit-looking, with crew-cut hair and a jokey demeanor rather than an air of sternness." During the interview he wore an "open-necked tattersall shirt, muted plaid jacket, dark slacks, scuffed walking shoes [and] rimless glasses." And "as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution Gao worked on a railroad-building gang and in an ammunition factory." There was even a photo fixed atop the story with Gao looking like your fantasy grandfather -- caring, sweet, and ready at any moment to throw you over his knee and tan your hide for your own durn' good. Who would worry that he held so much sway over U.S. policy making abroad?

But that is so last winter. Spring is here and Newsweek brings us the latest Chinese poster boy for our self-congratulatory pleasure: Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu. The headline and tagline read: "China's Best Westerns: Chen Zhu is a new model Chinese leader, a non-communist who trained in the West." Following the pat on our own back that Zhu studied in the hallowed halls of the western education system rather than that backwater that is China, the boilerplate profile ensues. "He worked in a small Chinese village as a "barefoot doctor" from 1970 to 1975 and is part of the "new generation of leaders [that] were trained in the West and are heavily influenced by Western trends." And worry not ladies: "Chen, 55, is no bland bureaucrat. He's only the second Chinese minister not to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party in 36 years."

While Newsweek sings the praises of Chen and Beijing's recent moves to improve health inspection systems, it makes no mention that this is the same Chinese health agency that chose to ignore early reports of Melamine poisoning for fear of losing face during the Olympics. This is the same government that pressured news editors to adhere to official copy from the Communist Party mouthpiece, Xinhua, and then later quashed efforts by parents whose children were affected by Melamine-tainted products to pursue complaints against the government.

But why taint a good yarn? The way Newsweek describes Chen and the new generation of Western-educated leaders that "returned home with a newfound sense of confidence and independent thought," you would think that in just a few short months the sagely, Westernized newcomers would usher the heavy-handed Chinese bureaucracy into an era of kinder, gentler leadership, with open Internet access, freedom of speech, and a cute pair of bunny slippers on everyone's feet.

Cue the children's chorus.

And let's not forget the clothes, the hair, and our beloved Horatio when judging Chinese leadership. These qualities are the seeming litmus test for whether they are one of us or, you know, Chinese. Thankfully, Chen passes with flying red, white, and blue colors:

Chen has refreshingly rough-hewn air. He's wearing a suit this day while making his rounds, but his rumpled mien somehow makes him look less like a CEO than the farmhand he once was. The son of two Shanghai doctors, Chen was sent to a dirt-poor village in Jiangxi province as a teenager during the Cultural Revolution.

Don't you feel better about China's ambitions already?

So the next time you read about the Chinese government cracking down on a democratic protest, cracking heads in a renegade province, or cracking the whip on prison laborers before their inevitable execution, remember: America's own are behind the scenes working toward a brighter tomorrow.