By Ruth Bayang
Northwest Asian Weekly
He was first the Chinese governor in the United States, first Chinese American U.S. ambassador to China, first Chinese American commerce secretary, and the King County Executive.
Gary Locke is a private citizen now, and chatted with the Northwest Asian Weekly on March 31 to share his thoughts on the presidential race, his time in China, and whether he’ll run for office again.
ON GARY, THE PRIVATE CITIZEN
GL: I have my own consulting practice. I advise both the U.S. and Chinese companies on cross-border trade and investments… corporate social responsibility, how to be active in the community and improve their public relations.
I’m also part-time at my old law firm where I serve as consultant to the clients of the firm. I’m not doing legal work, I advise them on U.S.-China issues.
GL: It was an incredible cultural experience and great opportunity for the children to really understand the land of their ancestors. …
It was really an eye-opening experience for them to really appreciate the two Chinas. There’s… the urban China.
Then, there’s rural China, where almost half the population live, in very meager accommodations. …[At my family home,] they still cook in the back using wood kindling and a propane stove, or over a burner. They don’t have microwaves, big refrigerators, washing machines, or dryers. The bathroom for the whole village is 100 meters away.
Before we came back (to the United States), [the kids] went to Chengdu to see the pandas. They’ve been to Guilin and enjoyed bicycle riding.
(Locke has three children: Emily, 19, Dylan, 17, and Madeline, 11.)
ON SPEAKING CHINESE
GL: [I’m] terrible! I’ve been trying to take Mandarin lessons — I get so confused between Cantonese and some (Mandarin) words that sound the same, but have totally different meanings. I just couldn’t do it.[My kids’] Chinese is so much better. They were learning Chinese in Maryland and [continued] in China — and they’re keeping it up, too. I’m really proud that they’re keeping it up.
ON BEING AMBASSADOR VS. BEING GOVERNOR
GL: The staff at the embassy said as an ambassador, I had more access to top Chinese government officials, more face time, than any other ambassador before — the doors were opening more for me. …
A lot of people think — the ambassador [deals only] with government issues. We deal with a lot of things. We deal with the education of the children of the employees at the embassy.
If someone has a heart attack, and they don’t understand the medical system, we offer help. If they get arrested, we — visit them to make sure they’re okay and protect them. …
Governors have a lot more power, but you still have to work with the legislature, and if the legislature doesn’t give you the money or the authority, you can’t do it. And of course, you have to answer to the people. You have to make sure you’re not too far out from what the public would support.
GL: [Chinese President Xi Jinping] is a very impressive individual, charismatic, easygoing, relaxed, and confident. …
When I sat in on the meetings with him and Vice President (Joe) Biden, [Xi] would often talk about what his father would say, or what his father used to do… he’s very much influenced by… the sayings, teachings, observations, and experiences of his father.
He has a clear view of what he wants for China and is moving very hard on the reforms.[President Barack] Obama is super smart — very sharp, and wants to hear from everybody at the table. He — makes people feel very relaxed. … [He’s a] very good athlete — he plays basketball with members of the cabinet and some of his staff, maybe once or twice a week at a local gym. …
I have golfed with [Obama] twice and he’s a very good golfer. He won!
I was so nervous around the president when I was playing. He said (does Obama impression) “Gary, just relax. Slow down, we got all day. It’s fun, just relax!”
ON A PROUD ACCOMPLISHMENT
GL: [As ambassador,] we were able to do things — that most ambassadors were not able to, like the visa (application process to enter the United States) …
When I first arrived (in China), it [took] 70 to 100 days just for an interview — with no guarantee you’ll get that visa. …
It was hurting jobs in America.
If a family in China — wants to visit Disneyland or the Grand Canyon, and they have to wait 100 days for a visa interview, they’re not going to come to America on vacation. So, they don’t shop in Macy’s — Costco, they don’t eat in the restaurants — stay in a hotel. But if they do – that’s lots of jobs for Americans.
My staff said — we need more people to [conduct] more interviews — or we need to pay people overtime and so we need more money. …
I said no — that’s not an excuse. We just completely re-analyzed everything. We set very high goals. Within a month and a half, we got it down to five days — no new people, no overtime. … Over the next few years, the demand for visas went up by 70 percent. The wait time dropped to three days.
ON PM 2.5
GL: People know what we have done at the embassy and all the consulates throughout China to make the Chinese people aware of pollution. Because of what we did, the Chinese government now publishes the PM 2.5 (measurement of air pollution levels). …
They didn’t like it at the time – they asked us to shut down [our website] . … We said no, we have an obligation under U.S. law that if we know that something is [harmful to people], we have to [inform] all the Americans living in that city.
Then, the Chinese people [demanded to know] why the U.S. embassy was releasing the data, but not [their own government]. … The Chinese government — didn’t have a good answer. So they finally backed down and gave in.
[We began] air monitoring on top of the U.S. embassy in Beijing… then expanded our program to all the consulates (Chengdu, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenyang, and Wuhan). …
The schools used our [pollution] readings. If the reading was over 150, the kids were not allowed outside during recess. And for the high school, if it was more than 200, they would cancel all soccer games, athletics, or track events.
Pretty soon, the international schools started building these huge domed covers. …
It’s fabric and they pump air inside to keep the ceiling up – but the air inside is filtered. And they spent millions of dollars doing it. Once one international school [built a dome], the others had to follow, because if they didn’t, all the students from there would go to that school.
ON THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES
GL: I’m supporting Hillary. …
I think sometimes her sharpness… and intellect overshadow her personality. Because deep down she can be very funny – she’s very loyal to her employees. …
People don’t see the warm, friendly, relaxed side of Hillary Clinton. I think if they did, more people would support her.
Bernie is promising everything, and — not saying how we’re going to pay for it. Not many of his ideas were very successful when he was in the U.S. Senate. So I wonder how much he’ll be able to get done as president. His ideas are so pie in the sky. …
Donald Trump on the other hand — is blaming the problems of [his supporters] on everybody else — Hispanics, Muslims, Asians. And he says terrible things about women. I want a president who brings us together.
America is a land of immigrants and [Trump] is turning his back on what America stands for. … I want someone who will say – yes we have problems, but this is how [we can] work together and it’s going be a brighter future for everyone.
ON RUNNING FOR PUBLIC OFFICE AGAIN
GL: No, I’m here in Seattle. I’m done with government, done with running for office.
Dylan, in a year and a half, will be heading off to college. Madeline is 11 years old, and pretty soon she’ll be off to college, too. I really feel like the time is getting shorter and shorter to spend with the kids.
ON PAVING THE WAY FOR OTHER ASIAN AMERICAN POLITICIANS
GL: When you’re forging a new trail, you’re cutting the brush, and it may not be perfect. The next person comes in and cuts a little bit more brush – makes it a little bit wider. Then the next person comes in and makes the path a little smoother. Pretty soon, everybody’s able to follow. …
I felt that if I could do an effective job and be respected by the people of Washington state, I could actually encourage more Asian Americans to run for office. And if I did a credible job, make it possible for them to win.
There have been in the past Asian American members of congress and the U.S. senate who were not well respected and sometimes used as the butt of jokes. It would hurt Asian Americans who would run for office.[Now], we’ve got so many examples of Asian Americans in office. It’s [no longer] unusual or a novelty.
Ruth Bayang can be reached at email@example.com.