BEIJING — As the United States’ first Chinese-American ambassador to China, Gary Locke made an impression on many ordinary people in Beijing with his down-to-earth ways: carrying his own backpack, paying for his Starbucks with a coupon and flying economy class.
His man-of-the-people demeanor, honed as two-term governor of Washington state and as commerce secretary, provided a sharp contrast to the often-remote and sometimes corrupt ways of the Chinese ruling class. Many netizens approved of his style, but a number of media organs affiliated with the Communist Party were discomfited by the unassuming envoy. His appointment, one suggested early in his tenure, may be an “evil” U.S. plot to use a Chinese person against Chinese and “instigate political turbulence” in China.
With his 2½-year term in Beijing coming to a close this week, Locke on Thursday reflected on his tenure and urged the Chinese to visit the United States “to see firsthand our freedoms, our diversity, our democracy — the dynamism and creativity of America.”
Through such trips, Locke said at the U.S. Embassy in his final news conference as ambassador before rejoining his family in Seattle, he hoped “that they’ll want some of those same things here in China, or that they’ll understand what is possible here in China.”
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Locke, who is being succeeded by longtime Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., stressed accomplishments such as increasing trade ties and decreasing visa-processing times for Chinese seeking to study, do business or travel in the United States.
In the past two years, he said, Chinese investment in the United States has exceeded the total from the previous 11 years combined, while U.S. exports to China have grown at almost twice the rate as exports to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, Locke faced a number of sticky issues during his time at the helm. In February 2012, Wang Lijun, the police chief in the western city of Chongqing, fled to a U.S. Consulate in southwest China with information about the killing of a British businessman, setting off China’s biggest political scandal in years. Wang’s flight led to the removal and subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment for corruption of Chongqing’s leader, Bo Xilai, formerly one of China’s most powerful politicians.
Two months later, legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and was given shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he remained for six days before being allowed to leave the country with his family to study in New York.
Locke described the Chen incident as “one of the highlights” and, in a locution that may set a new high bar for diplomatic speech, called it “a testament to how we were able to work with the Chinese government on addressing a very sensitive human-rights matter.”
He added that the U.S. government is concerned about a recent increase in arrests of activists and journalists in China, including that of Ilham Tohti, a scholar and advocate for minority Uighurs who was charged this week with separatism.
“We know there has been great prosperity and an increase in the quality of life, the standard of living here in China. But human rights is more than just economic prosperity and economic conditions of people,” Locke said, a reference to frequent reminders from Chinese officials that government development programs have brought more modern amenities to areas such as Xinjiang, a heavily Uighur area in far western China that has been rocked by violent clashes.
He also said the United States wanted to see “more equitable treatment of foreign journalists in China, giving them the freedom to report honestly, both the good and bad points in China, just as Chinese journalists enjoy these freedoms in our country.”
A number of foreign news organizations that have published hard-hitting reports looking at the wealth amassed by senior Chinese leaders and their families, including The New York Times, have seen reporters denied visas.
Locke, 64, applauded Chinese leaders for taking a greater interest in strengthening the rule of law.
Switching to regional Asian issues, he urged China and Japan to “lower the temperature and focus on diplomacy.”
Asked if he had ambitions to run for vice president on a 2016 ticket with Hillary Rodham Clinton, Locke, a Democrat, demurred. “I will be very active in helping other candidates, but I have no intention of being a candidate for any other office myself,” he said.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.