Penn alumnus Jon Hunstman Jr., the United States Ambassador to China, was not expecting to elicit claims that the U.S. is encouraging or supporting the “Jasmine Revolution” protests in China when he strolled by a busy area in Beijing on the way to a museum with his family.
According to a report by CBS News, Huntsman, whose recent decision to resign from his post later this year has fueled speculation of a possible presidential run in 2012, was spotted in the crowd of a protest on Feb. 20 outside a McDonald’s in a busy shopping center district where a demonstration was being held.
The demonstration was part of the so-called “Jasmine Revolution,” a series of small gatherings in China over the past week.
The gatherings have been coordinated by anonymous human rights activists who seem to be influenced by recent protests in the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf that are calling for similar democratic reforms using social media.
A Chinese man who recognized Huntsman, a 1987 College graduate, engaged the ambassador in a brief conversation, after which Huntsman left the scene with his bodyguards.
A video of this exchange and photos of Huntsman wearing sunglasses and a black leather jacket with an American flag at the demonstration have been circulating on pro-Chinese government websites and forums, according to Politico.
After the man asked Huntsman what he is doing at the demonstration, Huntsman replied, “I’m just here to look around,” according to a translation by China-based blog Shanghiist.
The man then said Huntsman “wants to see chaos in China,” to which Hunstman replied, “No, I don’t.”
The Chinese nationalist website M4 posted a video of the exchange alongside assertions that Huntsman was showing that the U.S. supports the demonstrators in the event. The blog called the wave of small demonstrations in China “western manipulations aimed at destabilizing [China].”
Professor Avery Goldstein, who teaches a class called “Chinese Politics” in the fall, feels that Hunstman’s presence at the demonstration was just a coincidence.
“It turns out, according to subsequent reports released [Thursday], that he just happened to be walking past the area at the time,” Goldstein said.
“My guess is that he saw the crowd gathered and went over to see what was going on,” he added.
Goldstein downplayed the significance of the event in terms of U.S. foreign policy.
“We do know that President [Barack] Obama and President [George W.] Bush before him have stated their support for the Chinese government to respect human rights, and in general we are in favor of political reforms in China,” Goldstein said.
“But I don’t think the U.S. government would take a particular stance supporting some sort of movement within China because one thing we don’t want to do is make it seem as though this movement is orchestrated by the U.S. or somehow has our direct support,” he continued.
The event is probably not significant enough to hurt Huntsman’s electoral chances, should he decide to run, now that the embassy has made it clear that Huntsman’s presence at the demonstration was “purely coincidental.”
“I don’t think this type of incident would affect voters,” Engineering junior and College Republicans president Peter Terpeluk said. “American citizens won’t see this as anything more than it is.”
“I suppose it’s possible that someone could use this picture in a campaign ad, but it was a pretty innocent picture of him just on the streets of Beijing on a Sunday afternoon,” Goldstein said.
Hunstman, a Republican who served as governor of Utah from 2005 to 2009, is the son of Jon Hunstman Sr., the namesake of Huntsman Hall.
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