Presidential candidate, former Governor of Utah, and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has often said that he is fluent in Mandarin, which he learned as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan for two years. A recent Slate article questioned whether or not Huntsman was truly fluent in Mandarin Chinese, especially after his most recent appearance on The Colbert Report.
Reporter Geoffrey Sant goes into quite a bit of detail to document and question Huntsman’s ability to speak Mandarin as fluent as he claims to. I’ve met Huntsman very briefly at my friend’s wedding in Salt Lake City many, many years ago when he was still governor and do recall him speaking Mandarin fairly easily with my friend’s father.
I’m sure Huntsman is fine when speaking socially. But by the strict definition of fluency for diplomatic purposes, is Huntsman’s Mandarin perfect? Probably not. I’m sure his Mandarin was pretty rusty prior to going to China and has languished when he returned to the U.S. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if his Mandarin is a whole lot better than mine, which I certainly don’t claim to be fluent. My high school friend, who is white and has lived in Asia for most of his adult life, is fluent in Mandarin, but I still cringe at his pronunciation of some.
I think many observers have claimed that Huntsman’s Mandarin is better than current ambassador to China, Gary Locke, who is ethnically Chinese (with the Chinese people’s expectation that all ethnically Chinese should be fluent in Mandarin). In any case, from a diplomatic standpoint, I’m sure both still used official translators to get the exacting understanding needed for delicate diplomatic matters (and not to concede and lose of “face” for having to concede to speaking in another language, as often European leaders do not even though they may truly be fluent in English).
Is Huntsman fluent in Mandarin compared to his fellow Republicans running for President? Absolutely. That is the point of differentiation that Huntsman is claiming. As I think every American recognizes, the bi-lateral relations between China and the United States is and will be one of the most important, if not most important, foreign relationship in the world in the 21st century. Being “fluent” and knowledgeable in the Chinese language, culture, and certainly politics, will only be an asset.