"China will have a crucial role in confronting all the major challenges" of the world, the president said. "I believe there is much to be gained from a closer working relationship with China."
During the transition, then-President-elect Obama told his advisers to "think outside the box" when it came to pending appointments. A White House official says that Jeff Bader, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff, told colleagues that he couldn't think of a better candidate than Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese from his time as a Mormon missionary, and has served in both the Commerce and State Departments.
Bader met Governor Huntsman when they worked in the US Trade Representative's ofice (Huntsman was deputy USTR.) They became close friends, socialized as families and have remained in close touch.
About a month ago, Bader called Huntsman and they began discussing Huntsman becoming Ambassador to China. Those calls were followed up with calls between Huntsman and White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. Last Saturday, with Huntsman in Washington, DC, for the White House Correspondents Dinner, President Obama met with him in the Oval Office to discuss the job, which the Utah governor accepted.
Huntsman today said he "never expected" as national co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign to be standing there. But when the president asks for service, he said, "that to me is the end of the conversation." Huntsman said first in Mandarin, then English, a Chinese saying: "Together we work. Together we progress."
Regarded as a moderate in his party, Huntsman has recently been quite outspoken about the need, in his view, for the Republican party to adapt to the changing demographics of the nation. "If we're not able to identify the changing demographic in this country and the needs of that changing demographic in terms of the issues that really matter — education and health care and quality of life and jobs — then we're going to lose, and we're going to keep losing big-time," Huntsman said last November at a meeting of Republican governors.
Huntsman served as Deputy United States Trade Ambassador from 2001-2003, and was US Ambassador to the Republic of Singapore from 1992 through 1993, unanimously confirmed by the Senate for both positions.
A statement from the White House said that President Obama "knows that Governor Huntsman has respect for China's proud traditions; understands what it will take to make America more competitive in the 21st century; and will be an unstinting advocate for America's interests and ideals, including in North Korea. Governor Huntsman's long service to the country also prepares him well to be frank with our Chinese friends when we disagree on human rights, democracy, and other matters."
In a 2006 speech at Shanghai Normal University, Huntsman said the US and China "need to continue to build and strengthen the bridge that exists, now a generation old, between our two great nations. This includes not demonizing each other when things go wrong. Our bilateral relationship will have its challenges, like any other, but our shared interests must be solid enough to weather the storms."
Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, have seven children, including a daughter adopted from China.
"When I look at Gracie Mei, I do not see a child that looks different than my other children," Huntsman said of his daughter of Chinese heritage in that 2006 speech. "I do not see someone who is of Chinese descent instead of Northern European ancestry. When I see Gracie Mei, I see my daughter. I see someone whose heart beats just like mine and whose spirit is just as resilient - whether it was born in rural China, like hers, or urban California, like mine. Nor do I judge her based upon any interpretation of the role of the individual in society - derived from Confucian or Jeffersonian ideals.
"Rather, I see my Chinese daughter through a prism of common humanity and understanding," he said. "A reminder that the most important thing you will do with your education or that I will do as an elected official, is to improve the human condition - through better economic opportunity, education, quality of life, and security - regardless of which side of the Pacific we came from."