Gary Locke, first Chinese American ambassador to China, will step down in early 2014  

by Elaine Dunn

On Nov. 20, just two-and-a-half years into his tenure, Gary Locke, the first Chinese American to serve as ambassador to China, made the unexpected announcement that he would be stepping down in early 2014. No firm departure date is available as this goes to press.

Locke’s announcement took many, including embassy staff, by surprise

and prompted much speculation amongst the Chinese press about his reasons for leaving. Locke informed President Obama of his decision in early November, citing his family would like to have the children finish high school in the U.S.

When Locke and his family arrived in Beijing in August 2011, he was instantly celebrated by the Chinese public as a “man-of-the-people.” Photos of the ambassador standing in line at a Seattle airport Starbucks to buy a cup of java prior to boarding the flight for Beijing went viral in Chinese social media. Images of the family carrying their own luggage out of the Beijing airport caught the people’s attention. The Locke family behaved like ordinary folks! The Chinese had never seen, nor will see any time soon, one of their own high-ranking officials display such plebian behavior! It made him hugely popular among Chinese netizens. However, his down-to-earth style did not endear him to the political elite of his host country. Hong Kong's Sing Tao Daily wrote, "He [Locke] did not engage in an ostentatious style . . . a stark contrast to the extravagant style of some mainland officials," and went on to encourage Chinese officials to ”reflect upon the reason for Locke’s popularity” with the Chinese populace.

Locke’s Chinese heritage may also have played against him as pointed out by Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. In a Nov. 20 article in The Washington Post, Paal was quoted saying, “Locke suffered somewhat for his Chinese heritage, something that did not necessarily boost his authority with officials here. That plays well in the United States but doesn’t translate in the host environment. They don’t treat you as an equal in China.” Wu Danhong, an assistant professor at the China University of Political Science and Law commented to the Global Times that the Chinese populace forgets Locke is in China “to sell American values … people should not be deluded by the label of ‘ethnic Chinese’.”
 
In addition, his tenure was not without controversy. In early 2012, the embassy started monitoring and posting hourly tweets on Beijing’s air quality. The Chinese government considered this an insult and misguided pressure by the embassy to force the government to clean up the air. Also in 2012, Locke was involved in helping prominent Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who had escaped house arrest, get safe passage to the U.S. Furthermore, under his watch, a former police chief from Chongqing sought refuge in the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Locke was instrumental in getting him to Beijing and provided him refuge at the Beijing embassy compound. This police chief turned out to be a key witness in the murder trial of a British national, which eventually led to the downfall of  then-party rising star Bo Xilai. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, was later convicted of the murder.

Another transgression that irked the Chinese authority was his speaking out for the human rights of the Tibetans and Uighurs. He urged for more open access to the western regions and stressed the importance of preserving their unique cultural heritage. Locke included that as one of his achievements in his resignation statement, “And we have advanced American values by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers, and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.”

Conjectures of his career path by Chinese media were quick in surfacing, ranging from a bid in the 2016 election for either the top spot or the second-in-command post.  Whatever he chooses to do in the future, Locke will be credited with raising awareness of Beijing’s air pollution problem and shortening the time for getting a U.S. visa from “historical highs of 70-100 days” to 3-5 days.

A copy of Locke’s complete statement on his term as U.S. Ambassador to China is available at
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