Gary Locke: China hand extraordinaire

Updated: 2014-12-05 14:27

By Yu Deng in Seattle(China Daily USA)

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Gary Locke: China hand extraordinaire

Gary Locke: China hand extraordinaire

Former Ambassador to China Gary Locke, holding his favorite Starbucks coffee, talks to China Daily about his work and life after back to Seattle at the caf inside the Quality Food Center (QFC) store in Bellevue, WA. Deng Yu / China Daily

He is a man of many firsts: the first Chinese-American US ambassador to China, the first Chinese-American Secretary of Commerce and the first Chinese-American governor of the State of Washington.

He wears a leather jacket and drives his own car; he loves Starbucks and proudly shares photos on his smartphone of him playing the planking game with his children and he said the ambassadorship to China was the experience of lifetime and unforgettable for his entire family.

He is Gary Locke, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to be the tenth ambassador of the United States to the People's Republic of China, and assumed the duties of Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to China in August 2011.

Gary Locke: China hand extraordinaire

Stephen Orlins, president of the National Committee on United States-China relations once commented, "America could not find someone better prepared to be ambassador to China."

"Unfortunately my father passed away few months before I became ambassador, but I believe he would have been prouder than anything to see me become ambassador to the land of our ancestors," Locke said.

Locke was born in 1950 in Seattle, Washington, and spent his early years living in the Yesler Terrace public housing project. Locke's grandfather immigrated from Taishan, China to Washington State in the 1890s, initially finding employment as a servant, working in exchange for English lessons.

His father, James Locke, also born in China, was a small business owner, operating a grocery store in Seattle where young Gary worked while going to public schools in Seattle.

"I come from a family with very humble beginnings. I washed clothes, prepared and cleaned the cloth diapers for my little brothers and took the bus to the store where I worked part-time," he said.

Regarding his ethnicity, he said, "I'm proud of my Chinese heritage. I'm proud of the great contributions that China has made to world civilization over thousands of years. The Chinese people and the government officials are so friendly and gracious."

As ambassador, Locke's low-key, unassuming style charmed the Chinese and made him a favorite of the Chinese media when he was in China.

"It is an American style or Seattle style rather than a so- called Gary Lock style," he said.

He said he completely understands how people in China sometimes expected him to "represent China" because of his Chinese heritage.

"But I'm thoroughly American. I'm proud of the great values that America has brought to the entire world and all that America stands for. My job is as a representative of the US government in China, to look after the interests of American people in China," Locke said.

Locke paid regular visits to his family village in Taishan in southern China. "The number six uncle of my father still lives there and the place is my roots," Locked said. On Dec 16, 2013, in his final days as US ambassador to China, Locke paid one last visit to his relatives at his ancestral village.

During his tenure as ambassador he had a full agenda. "I had many priorities: increasing US exports to China; expanding the cultural and people-to-people exchange between the US and China; improving visa processing; and increasing Chinese investments to the US," he said.

As the keynote speaker at the fourth annual China 2.0 conference hosted by Stanford Graduate School of Business on October 3, 2013, he pointed out that for many global issues, neither China or the US can solve them alone, and must work together to make progress.

"I am optimistic as I really see so much more higher-level interaction between our companies, our scientists, our researchers, political people and everyday people," he said.

"China and the United States have to be involved together and indeed the world is looking for leadership from both the United States and China to solve the tough challenges and problems," he said.

One month later, in November 2013, the ambassador announced that he was stepping down to rejoin his family in Seattle.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei commented on Locke's job in Beijing, "Since taking up the American ambassadorship to China, Mr Gary Locke has worked hard to promote the exchange and cooperation between China and US. 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 US State Department said. "Under his leadership, the growth of American exports to China averaged two times the growth of US exports to the rest of the world, and the value of Chinese investment in the United States increased significantly."

He reduced the waiting time for Chinese to get US visas to three to five days from as long as 100 days when he came in. Locke said the improvement had "significantly increased Chinese business and travel tourism to the US".

On November 10 at the 2014 APEC summit in Beijing, US President Obama officially announced a new visa policy mutually agreed to by the US and China. Both governments put the policy into effect immediately to increase business and tourist visa validity to 10 years and student validity to 5 years.

"The new visa policy means there will be more people-to-people exchange between the two countries, which will build a base for a stronger bilateral relationship between the US and China," Locke said.

Locke married his wife, Mona Lee, a television reporter with NBC affiliate KING 5 television in Seattle and a former Miss Asian America, in 1994. Lee's parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan and were originally from the China mainland, her paternal side from Shanghai and maternal side from Hubei. The Lockes have three children: Emily Nicole, 17, Dylan James, 15, and Madeline Lee, 10.

Locke said it was not a sudden decision to resign from the ambassador post. "My family actually made the decision almost one year before I left. We suddenly realized my daughter would start her junior year in high school and we wanted to have her last two years of high school in the United States. We would never just send her back to the United States to go to school all by herself. We will always move as a family," he said.