China Ink

Locke out

Gary Locke, the American ambassador to China, is to leave the post next year to return to the United States


Why is he leaving?

The Beijing News doubted that Locke was leaving for purely family reasons, saying it was more likely that he was moving to boost his career prospects. Diao Daming, a professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also claimed the inside scoop on Phoenix News, suggesting that Washington is displeased with Locke for being “too mild and friendly” to China. “Another reason is the money,” Diao offered confidently. “He has three kids to support and a good education costs a lot in the US. An ambassador’s salary isn’t enough.”

Locke says he is moving back to Seattle after a little over two years in Beijing because he wants his children to finish high school in the United States. His wife and family have already returned to America. His time in office will be similar to Jon Huntsman, his predecessor, who left after less than two years to run for the White House, says the Huffington Post. Locke hasn’t said what he will do next. “I’m still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up. I really have no idea,’’ he told the LA Times.

Isn’t the real reason Beijing’s bad air?

Isn’t the real reason
Beijing’s bad air?

Many netizens seemed to think so. “The haze in Beijing is so bad that Gary Locke couldn’t take it anymore,” suggested one. “His wife and kids couldn’t stand the haze,” claimed another. “He’s heading home to clean out his lungs,” reckoned a third. Need we go on…

Locke has denied that pollution forced his decision. “Absolutely not,” he told the LA Times. “We are concerned about it [air quality], but that’s not what motivated us to go back.” But Locke has played a part in highlighting the pollution problem, publicising the embassy’s PM 2.5 readings and refusing to buckle to pressure to limit the release of the information. By standing his ground, he helped nudge Communist Party officials to put health and sustainability issues on the agenda, says Bloomberg.

How else was Locke regarded?

Chinese netizens liked his down-to-earth style. They were impressed that he bought his own coffee. His habit of flying in economy class and turning down five-star hotels also drew positive comment. Locke was “a pearl in a pile of trash” whose conduct made the “boozing gluttons” among Chinese officialdom look even worse, one weibo contributor recorded.

“His ethnic Chinese identity and face brought a sense of familiarity to a lot of people, and these people could not help treating this US ambassador as a ‘Chinese’,” the Global Times remembered. “However, he soon showed his steadfastness and loyalty to US national interests and his ethnic Chinese origins did not have any influence on this.”

“But Sino-US ties kept their forward momentum while he was in office. In general, from the perspective of both the US and China, Locke’s performance shouldn’t be given a low mark.”

His service in China should serve as a blueprint for managing Sino-American relations, said Matt Schiavenza in The Atlantic. Certainly his negotiation skills were tested when the former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun and the rights activist Chen Guangcheng both sought American diplomatic protection. Locke described the latter situation as “mission impossible”, according to the New York Times.

But Locke has preferred to look back at his tenure in terms of what it did to “create jobs in America”. Chinese investment in the US reached $19.5 billion last year, while American exports to China also increased. Locke said he had shortened waiting times for Chinese applying for US visas too, from highs of 100 days down to no more than five days.

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