Playing a China Card: Hidden Genius in the (Bogus) Huntsman Story?

I mentioned yesterday how preposterous I thought it was for Newsweek to tout the idea that Jon Huntsman Jr, the Republican ex-governor of Utah now serving as US Ambassador to China, was about to enter the 2012 presidential race to unseat Barack Obama, rather than aiming at 2016 or whenever.

Summary version of the "are you kidding?" case:
    1) In the primaries, why would Republican voters choose an Obama Administration team member as the leader of the anti-Obama crusade?
    2) In the general election, how would an Obama Administration team member argue that returning the Obama Administration to power would be a horrible mistake?
    3) Even before the elections, how could a person as plugged-in and savvy as Huntsman not have thought of points 1 and 2? And in any case, he needed to have started yesterday if he were planning a serious run this time.

But a friend in Beijing writes to say that there may be a hidden logic or silver lining to the rumor -- on Huntsman's side, if not on Newsweek's. This friend is neither American nor Chinese, but he knows Huntsman, and he deals every day with Chinese officialdom. In the haiku eloquence of a tweet he writes:

>>That interview is going to raise JH's effectiveness as ambassador exponentially with the Chinese. The way they like to hedge....<<

Ie, there is nothing that will get the attention of the Zhongnanhai leadership like the idea that the mere ambassador they are humoring today could be back another day as a mighty American President. That vague future possibility is already built in with Huntsman, but this story, which Chinese officials won't be sure they can dismiss, should concentrate their minds.

I'd love to think that Obama and Huntsman deliberately planted this rumor as a way of ramping up US diplomatic effectiveness in China. (After all, there was nothing in it hostile to Obama, which adds to the weirdness of the idea that Huntsman would soon be challenging his current boss.) But usually the explanation for events is more blunder-filled than that. I'll write this off to holiday-weekend press hype -- while hoping that, as my friend says, the commissars take it seriously and therefore take America's representative all the more seriously too.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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