BEIJING (Reuters) - Jon Huntsman is a savvy operator who knows how to work a crowd. But it was someone in a crowd who worked Huntsman on a bitterly cold Sunday last month when the U.S. envoy to China was seen at a small anti-government protest in Beijing.
"Mr. Ambassador, why are you here?" an unidentified Chinese man called out to Huntsman, who is thinking about running for the White House in 2012. "Just taking a look," replied the silver-haired Huntsman in Chinese, wearing sunglasses and a brown leather jacket with an American flag patch sewn on the shoulder.
"Do you want China to be chaotic?" added the Chinese man in an exchange captured on video and posted on Youtube.
"That's not possible," Huntsman replied, smiling, before moving on through a crowd of passers-by who watched police disperse 100 people who had heeded Internet calls for Chinese protests following demonstrations in North Africa and the Middle East.
Although U.S. officials said Huntsman was out shopping and coincidentally stumbled upon the gathering, the encounter with ordinary Chinese was typical of an envoy who has often delved beyond diplomatic circles during his two-year tenure in China.
His appearance at the protest -- which Chinese police dispersed before it really began -- was also consistent with the independent-minded personality of a man who declined to endorse a fellow Mormon from Utah, Mitt Romney, in the 2008 presidential election to back John McCain who had a media reputation as a "maverick."
The former Utah governor certainly bucked the Republican establishment when he accepted Democratic President Barack Obama's nomination to be U.S. ambassador to China, when the president was looking to recruit Republicans into his administration after a bitterly divisive election.
But he has had a long-standing interest in China and the Far East. The 50-year-old who once dropped out of high school to play guitar in a rock band, is father of an adopted Chinese daughter and learned to speak Mandarin while on a Mormon mission to Taiwan during college. He was appointed U.S. ambassador to Singapore in 1992 at the age of 32, becoming the youngest head of a U.S. diplomatic mission in a century.
Huntsman has been spotted riding a bicycle to work and even to official meetings at the foreign ministry. He is often seen walking the streets of Beijing, taking the temperature of a society going through breath-taking change. Described as relatively laid-back and amiable, Huntsman has been raising his profile of late.
On Monday, the envoy condemned the mistreatment of foreign reporters who went to cover another planned protest after a U.S.-based Chinese website spread appeals for Chinese people to emulate the "Jasmine Revolution" sweeping the Middle East.
It was the third time in as many weeks Huntsman had set himself publicly against the ruling Chinese Communist Party's efforts to stamp out even the slightest murmur of dissent.
Huntsman will step down as ambassador on April 30, fuelling speculation he will make a run for the White House. His brother has said he would make a decision in a matter of weeks.
His campaign-in-waiting has launched a political action committee (websitewww.horizon-pac.com/) and fund-raising effort, with a somewhat ambiguous slogan, "Maybe Someday." Its stated aim is to support "a new generation of conservative leaders," but doesn't mention Huntsman's name.
Huntsman, who declined all requests for comment for this story, is the eldest of nine children of Jon Huntsman Sr., a billionaire industrialist and founder of Huntsman Corp, Utah's largest company. His father was a special assistant to former President Richard Nixon, and Huntsman junior's first political experience came as a staff assistant under former President Ronald Reagan. Interviews with Huntsman's friends and associates show that he is skilled at walking the diplomatic tightrope but that may not matter to voters whose focus is on the home front. The gamble will be whether Huntsman's record as Obama's hand-picked envoy would figure as an asset, a burden or be largely irrelevant to an electorate worried about jobs. In China, Huntsman has been a strong advocate for issues dear to the core of both parties -- speaking out for victims of human rights abuse in China, while championing the agenda of U.S. businesses worried about an overvalued yuan, intellectual property rights and unfair competition.
On one cold February morning, Huntsman stood on the sidewalk in front of a Chinese courthouse surrounded by foreign reporters. The Beijing People's High Court had just rejected the appeal of an American citizen, Xue Feng, who had challenged his eight-year sentence for violating state secrets rules.
Xue, a 44-year-old geologist, had negotiated the sale of a Chinese oil industry database to an American consultancy in 2007, but the Chinese government labeled the database a state secret after the sale and detained him.
The court rejected his appeal.
"I'm extremely disappointed by the outcome," said Huntsman at the time. "We call on the Chinese government to consider an immediate humanitarian release of Xue Feng."
Just days before that, the ambassador sparred with China over online censorship. He had posted messages on a Chinese microblog, asking readers for their thoughts on a recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- Chinese censors deleted the messages.
In recent years, critics have complained that U.S. ties with its biggest lender have been characterized more by realpolitik than a willingness to press Beijing on human rights. But Huntsman's attention to such issues during his time in Beijing has been noteworthy.
"I have been struck by how much time he has spent on human rights during his tenure as ambassador," said John Kamm, a former businessman who is now executive director and founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, a non-governmental human rights organization. Last month, Huntsman visited dissident Ni Yulan in a hotel -- a so-called "black jail" -- where she has been staying after her home was bulldozed by officials. Now she remains under the watchful eyes of Chinese authorities. Ni is a former lawyer who was jailed and beaten by police in 2008 for defending the rights of people evicted from their homes to make way for Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics. She was first jailed and beaten by police in 2002 for filming the forced demolition of a client's home. She was released in April last year. "No Chinese official has come to see me, but the U.S. ambassador, a person of his standing, could actually come to the hotel to see me, even more so, it's a 'black hotel,' I was very touched," Ni told Reuters of the surprise visit that lasted about an hour. "He shook my hand. He asked me about my predicament. I told him about the hardship that I've experienced over the past 10 years. He kept on asking me: 'How did they hurt you?' and kept on pressing me for details. I felt he deeply cared about me."
When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the United States in January, the American business community was keen to hear if he would make any concessions on his policy of promoting "indigenous innovation," which they say is nothing more than a way to force technology transfers to Chinese companies.
Hu did, promising that government procurement wouldn't be linked to whether technology and intellectual property had been developed locally. This was something Huntsman had been pushing hard in Beijing, according to business lobby groups.
As a former executive with the family chemical business, which has operations in China, Huntsman mixes easily with U.S. executives who pass through Beijing to explore opportunities in the world's second-largest economy. "I've always found him very engaged and committed to working with U.S. companies to address commercial issues we have abroad," said Myron Brilliant, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Huntsman's relatively high profile in China has a cinematic dimension. He has allowed a video crew to follow him in a range of settings over the past year, a person familiar with the video production told Reuters. The privately funded project ostensibly plans to make a documentary about Huntsman, although it would undoubtedly come in handy in any political campaign.
Huntsman and the embassy declined to confirm or comment about the video crew. "If China is an issue in the 2012 campaign, and I believe that it will be an issue, Jon's China experience will be an asset," said Kamm, the human rights group executive. "As the other candidates pound away on China, he can ask how many have ever visited the country, met with senior leaders, speak the language? In a field of 10 candidates, he could be the only one that adopts an intelligent, nuanced approach to the country." Others say Huntsman's role in China, no matter how nuanced, may be largely irrelevant to an electorate more concerned about jobs in a sluggish economy at home. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, could crowd out Huntsman for those votes, said Tim Chambless, political scientist at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
"As long as Americans are thinking about the economy as a front and center, that helps Mitt Romney more than it helps Jon,' Chambless said. "Jon Huntsman is perceived right now as an excellent ambassador and excellent diplomat, but it's Mitt Romney who has intentionally been carving out a political niche as a turnaround artist." Romney has been traveling the United States, making appearances "while Jon Huntsman has been halfway around the world." Judging from the chatter on Chinese blogs and websites, Huntsman's campaigns in China have won him much goodwill among ordinary Chinese and officials alike because of his ability to speak Mandarin and as the father of his 11-year-old adopted daughter, Gracie Mei. He and his wife Mary Kaye also have seven of their own children. "Overall, I think he leaves quite a positive image among the Chinese government for being very professional and for being able to speak Mandarin," said Shi Yinhong of the Center for American Studies at Renmin University. As he weighs his options, Huntsman has the luxury of time and patience, a virtue that China with its long history often preaches. "My own perception," says Chambless, "is that he's really sending signals out for 2016 rather than 2012."
(Additional reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim, Chris Buckley, Don Durfee, Sally Huang in Beijing and Caren Bohan in Washington)
Editing by Bill Tarrant