The future is wide open for Ambassador Gary Locke, who will be returning home from China in March. Never flashy, Locke seems to have spent his career steadily increasing his leadership positions without ever appearing to be power hungry. Locke is quiet, almost nerdy, and more concerned with achievable successes than flamboyant glory. It’s an admirable trait, and the Asian American community can hardly be blamed for harboring some pride in claiming him as one of their own. But then, Ambassador Locke is fully American, so you don’t have to be Asian to do that. Still.
Locke’s achievements are numerous: distinguished Eagle Scout, lawyer, Washington State Representative, King County Executive, Governor of Washington state, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and U.S. Ambassador to China. It’s a long way from a childhood spent in a Yesler Terrace housing project.
Has Locke’s time as Ambassador to China — the only Chinese American to ever hold that post — changed China’s perception of America?
One of the most remarkable impressions the ambassador made on the Chinese was a photograph of him buying his own coffee and carrying his own backpack at Sea-Tac before flying off to Beijing. The image went viral in China, charming the common folk who are used to seeing public officials waited on for everything.
“To most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief,” Chen Weihua, an editor at China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, wrote. The image ignited a firestorm of comments about how out-of-touch privileged Chinese officials are with the real lives of ordinary Chinese people.
The image was followed by a second one showing the Locke family carrying their own luggage at the airport in Beijing.
“Perhaps it is time for Chinese dignitaries to follow the example of humble Locke,” Weihua said.
But Ambassador Locke has done some real work during his tenure. He looks at big issues, such as increasing Chinese investment in the United States and exposing the Chinese to American-style democracy, then follows the trail of small details that will lead to his goals. He succeeded in reducing wait times for Chinese applying for visas to the United States from 100 days to just five days. In the past two years, he said in a recent interview, more Chinese investment has poured into the United States than in the previous 11 years combined.
Locke’s appointment shattered the belief that many mainstream Americans have — that a Chinaman can’t be trusted to represent America.
Locke was the first Chinese American to be a U.S. Ambassador to China. Before that, the Chinese community had a perception that the U.S. government wouldn’t trust Chinese Americans to deal with China, fearful that they would still be loyal to their ancestral land. There have been, after all, several Chinese Americans accused of and arrested for spying for China over the past few decades.
After former Ambassador Jon Huntsman resigned, Locke was Obama’s first choice. The appointment has opened doors for Asian Americans. Soon after Locke’s appointment, a Korean American was appointed to be U.S. Ambassador to South Korea. This is a big change in attitude toward Asian Americans serving the federal government.
Locke has pushed the Chinese toward a better understanding of who an American is. Many were confused that this Chinese-looking man, whose father was born in China and whose mother was born in Hong Kong, was not actually Chinese. He couldn’t speak the language. His loyalty was to America, not China. Yet his Chinese roots run deep and are meaningful to him. He has visited his ancestral village of Jilong several times and met with relatives there. The Chinese are learning that we can be proud Americans and proud Chinese Americans.
Ambassador Locke did well by the Chinese people, while promoting American values. He kept China’s air pollution and human rights issues in the spotlight. The people have noticed, and the government has been forced to respond.
Twice now Locke has given up positions of power to be able to spend more time with his family. During his second term as governor, he announced he would not seek a third term just for that reason. Last year, he gave the same reason for resigning the Ambassadorship. You can do a lot for your country in terms of public service, but maybe Gary Locke knows the best thing he can do for his country right now is to spend time with his family. (end)