Just as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrapped up his recent trip to China, including his meeting in Beijing with Ambassador Gary Locke, news came Wednesday that Amb. Locke would step down in early 2014.
In a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, Locke said he mentioned his decision to resign when he met President Obama earlier this month. “Living in China while representing the United States has truly been an exciting privilege for our entire family,” he said.
In October, Locke was in Seattle as the keynote speaker at the annual banquet of the Washington State China Relations Council. He talked about the growing China and Washington trade, his work promoting American business in China and Chinese investment in the U.S., and improving the visa application process for Chinese travelers to the U.S. In a moderated Q&A session that followed, Locke was asked what would be next for him since his wife Mona and kids had returned to Seattle and he would be alone in Beijing. Locke replied, he could never predict the future. Every move in his career, he said, from running for King County executive to becoming Commerce secretary, just happened.
So what caused Locke to decide to leave his post in Beijing as the first Chinese American U.S. ambassador to China after a little more than two years?
Locke said the reason was personal: he would like to rejoin his family in Seattle. According to a U.S. Embassy official, Locke mentioned how he and Mona would like their children to finish school in one place, especially the two eldest to finish high school. He also mentioned how President Obama with two daughters of his own was supportive of his decision. “He is very aware of how fast our children are growing up,’ Locke said of Obama, “and how little time we have with them.”
The sudden and unexpected nature of his announcement, however, has spawned all kinds of speculations in China as to why Locke decided to leave. Some wondered if the bad air in Beijing was the reason. Locke said air pollution was a concern, but it was not his motive to step down. Others suggested that Locke might be “retreating in order to advance” to get ready to run for president in 2016. Still others guessed that Locke might need more money than the salary of an ambassador in order to pay for his children’s college education.
Locke has been ambassador since August 2011. During his time in the post, he had to handle two difficult moments in U.S.-China relations. One involved Wang Lijun, police chief of jailed former Party leader of Chongqing Bo Xilai, seeking protection from his boss at the American Consulate in Chengdu. Another involved Chen Guangcheng, the activist lawyer escaping from house arrest to the sanctuary of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. The eventual arrangements for the two men may have been decided by Locke’s boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, or even the White House. Locke, however, was the one in the spotlight.
To China’s masses, Locke’s style has been a contrast to corrupt government officials who enjoy pomp and extravagance. By flying coach, carrying his own bag, eating street food, waiting for an hour with his family to ride the cable on the Great Wall, etc., Locke made those officials uneasy. By leaving, some joked, many in China will feel relieved.
As he did as governor of Washington state and U.S. Commerce secretary, Locke set as his priority the creating of jobs in the U.S. He traveled widely in China, telling Chinese companies to “Select USA.” However, his business-focused effort didn’t seem enough for some inside the Beltway. It was “not evident,” said Douglas Paal, VP at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that Locke had a grand strategic vision for U.S.-China relations.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Wednesday, “Since taking up the American ambassadorship to China, Mr. Gary Locke has worked hard to promote the exchange and cooperation between China and U.S. We appreciate it.”
“Throughout his successful tenure, Ambassador Locke devoted enormous personal energy to opening Chinese markets to American companies, promoting Chinese tourism and business travel to the United States, and advocating greater respect for human rights,” the U.S. State Department said. “Under his leadership, the growth of American exports to China averaged two times the growth of U.S. exports to the rest of the world, and the value of Chinese investment in the United States increased significantly.”
U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen (WA-02) released a statement on Wednesday thanking Locke for his service: “His historic appointment as the first Chinese-American to be our ambassador to China led to closer ties and more frank dialogue across the Pacific.” In closing, Larsen said, surely for many fellow Washingtonians, “I thank Gary for his work and look forward to welcoming him back home in Washington state.”
Published November 20th, 2013