The Communist Party can’t wait to see the back of Gary Locke, the outgoing U.S. ambassador who ruffled many a feather during his two-plus years in Beijing. The 1.2 billion Chinese who aren’t party members should beg him to stay.
After Locke’s resignation announcement, online commentators claimed Beijing’s toxic air was forcing him back to Washington state, where his family relocated earlier this year. Locke’s denial couldn’t quell the rumors, which points to one of four ways in which the quiet, unassuming former governor bruised party egos and influenced outcomes to benefit China’s masses.
First, Locke’s embassy focused a spotlight on air pollution.
Roughly two years before Locke arrived in August 2011, the embassy under Jon Huntsman began monitoring and analyzing Beijing’s air quality. Next, it regularly shared its findings on Twitter, ostensibly for the Americans living in the city. Once Locke showed up, Communist Party leaders really lashed out, accusing the United States of interfering in its domestic affairs. The trouble was, the embassy’s PM2.5-level air pollution figures, measuring particulates that cause disease and premature death in high concentrations, were much higher than Beijing’s. U.S. and Chinese officials also had vastly different definitions of when the levels were “hazardous.”
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Far from buckling, the embassy expanded the program to consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang. Chinese microbloggers shared the U.S. data throughout China. Today, pollution has replaced land grabs as the primary cause of social unrest, and officials have pledged billions in an effort to cleanse the skies. Locke helped nudge Communist Party officials to put health and sustainability issues on the agenda.
Second, this everyman shamed “communist” millionaires. Even before arriving in Beijing, Locke had become a cult hero. A photo of Locke wearing a backpack and buying his own coffee at Seattle’s airport went viral in China. The lowest party apparatchiks send flunkies to pick up their iced mochaccinos and wouldn’t be caught carrying their own bags.
Locke’s picture pleasantly shocked a nation long inured to the privileges of public service, with official largesse propped up as much by bribery and graft as by expense accounts. It gave Locke an instant cache of “soft power” and put coddled public officials on the defensive. Locke continued to charm ordinary Chinese by flying economy class, eschewing five-star hotels and restaurants, and traveling in modest sedans. His frugality and laid-back demeanor spoke volumes at a time when Chinese are asking profound questions about whether their leaders are serving themselves more than the country. Locke left little doubt he is serving American voters, not his bank account.
Third, he championed human rights. Locke met regularly with human-rights lawyers and religious leaders. In April 2012, blind activist Chen Guangcheng fled to the U.S. Embassy and was whisked off to New York. Locke’s September 2012 trip to a mountainous region of western China to meet with a group of disaffected Tibetans particularly angered Chinese officials. But by navigating these explosive issues and others with humility and charm, Locke managed to push back, while defusing Beijing’s wrath.
Finally and perhaps most important, Locke showed that a Chinese can criticize China. Many were deeply perplexed early on by a man of Chinese descent who was more loyal to Washington, D.C., than to Beijing. Bloggers called Locke “traitorous” and “deceitful” before mainlanders — over time and often grudgingly — began to accept that one could be proudly Chinese without supporting the political system established by Mao Zedong.
That realization could help change Chinese perceptions of their brethren in Hong Kong and Taiwan. What many mainlanders don’t get is that these ethnic Chinese, too, take great pride in their heritage. When they criticize Beijing, they’re not being “anti-Chinese.” They simply don’t like the current form of government in Beijing.
Locke did very well by China’s people, even if that government disagrees.
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.