By CNN's Jaime FlorCruz and Tian Shao in Beijing, China
Since taking up his post as America's new ambassador to China, Gary Locke has become an increasingly popular figure among ordinary Chinese.
Born and bred in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents, Locke's down-to-earth style immediately struck a chord with netizens when he arrived in the country in August.
A picture of him buying coffee with coupons at an airport quickly circulated in cyberspace the day he arrived in Beijing. After landing, the envoy and his family were snapped without a big entourage of assistants and carrying their own luggage.
They even took a minivan into the city, rather than an official embassy limousine, prompting many people to compare this with the perceived lavish spending habits and imperious attitude of some Chinese officials.
Last month, Caixin magazine published an investigative report about how a local government in Hubei province spent a whopping 800,000 yuan ($125,000) over several weeks to prepare for an inspection tour by a group of nine senior local officials.
The officials inspected Zigui, one of the poorest counties in China. The expose has since spread to the internet, prompting anti-corruption officials to call for an audit of how the money was spent and why so much was needed.But now some Chinese commentators are warning these Locke admirers: Curb your enthusiasm.
In recent weeks, Locke has been labeled as a "neo-colonialist" who enjoys "far more attention than he deserves."
In an editorial published in the state-run Global Times on Thursday, an unnamed commentator mocked the domestic media's collective fever over Locke's "personal life show" as a form of "romanticizing about what they see out of a lack of knowledge."
The commentator wrote: "It is bizarre and twisted to regard these acts as evidence of cleanness in U.S. politics.
"It is unbelievable that Locke's casual stroll through hutongs (Chinese old neighborhoods) with his family could win so much praise. The fact is countless top officials, whether in the U.S. or in China, would enjoy the same activity."
U.S. Embassy Deputy Spokesman Justin Higgins declined to comment on the story.
When CNN asked China's foreign ministry spokesman to comment, Hong Lei simply said China and the U.S. should "continue to build a partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit."
Meanwhile, The Global Times editorial shifted its attack on the American envoy, implying that he was taking advantage of the media attention.
"Locke co-operated well with the media, consciously or unconsciously," it claimed.
"It might be his individual preference or his new mission at work. He enjoys the fact that his acts are praised by Chinese media, even though he knows he is not as plain as described."
It went on to urge the former governor of Washington to do his work as an ambassador instead of acting like a political star.
It also appealed to Chinese journalists to find other angles if they want to criticize corruption and bureaucracy in Chinese official circles.
However, The Global Times' jabs at Locke were rather mild compared to a previous commentary in the Guangming Daily. The state-run newspaper warned the public not to fall for Locke's "façade."
Behind this front, the commentary claimed, is the ambassador's real intention to "stir up political chaos" in China.
"He's a smart self-promoter who knows too well how to win the hearts of ordinary Chinese people," it said.
Calling Locke a "neo-colonialist," the editorial accused him of "deploying advanced media techniques to brainwash citizens in developing countries aimed at making them worship all things foreign."
Online, the editorial attracted massive hits and comments. Some gave it the thumbs-up but many others disagreed. "if neo-colonialism helps cut public expenses, welcome to China," said one netizen on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter.