BEIJING — Former Washington Gov. Gary Locke said Wednesday he will step down from his post as American ambassador to China early next year to rejoin his family in Seattle.
Locke said he informed President Obama of his decision when they met earlier this month.
Locke, who is married with three children, took the post in August 2011 and was the first Chinese American to hold it.
The ambassador’s wife, Mona Locke, announced this past summer a decision to move back to Seattle to take a position as interim executive director with Komen Puget Sound, the local branch of the Susan G. Komen organization.
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In a statement released Wednesday (Tuesday in Seattle), Locke said he was proud of what the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in China have accomplished, including increasing U.S. exports to China, promoting Chinese investment in the United States and reducing waiting times for a visa to three to five days from highs of 70 to 100 days, which has “significantly increased” Chinese business and tourism travel to the U.S.
Locke said that during his tenure, embassy officials advanced American values by meeting with religious leaders and human-rights lawyers and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, an autonomous region in Western China.
When he became ambassador, the former U.S. commerce secretary and two-term governor of Washington state saw as his priorities boosting trade and maintaining smooth relations between Washington, D.C., and its biggest foreign creditor.
Locke said U.S.-China relations continue to grow stronger despite a complex relationship.
“While our bilateral relationship is a complex one, I remain confident in the ability of our leaders to manage differences and increase cooperation in areas of mutual concern to the benefit of not just our two great peoples, but the entire world,” he said.
Yet less than a year into his tenure, he was earning respect from the human-rights lobby for his role in the drama over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest, sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and later moved to New York. At one point, Locke was photographed holding Chen’s hand as they entered a hospital.
Locke, a former King County executive, who served as Washington’s governor from 1997 to 2005 and U.S. commerce secretary from 2009 to 2011, met with Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday in China. Inslee’s spokesman, David Postman, said Tuesday night he didn’t know what the two discussed.
In a guest column published in The Seattle Times earlier this month, Mona Locke joked about being part of a “bi-continental” family based in Seattle.
“Gary and I wanted our family to have a place to call ‘home,’ ” she wrote. “We needed a home where our kids could attend local schools, make lifelong friends, and learn to value community and to help others.”
Not all in China have always been fans: Last September, about 50 protesters ambushed his car, but he was not harmed.
But many others were charmed by photographs of him doing things most prominent Chinese officials would never do. One picture in particular, of Locke ordering food with his daughter while wearing a backpack, went viral in China. Chinese officials would never carry their bags, according to reports at the time.
And when Locke visited his family’s ancestral home in the southeastern province of Guangdong, he attracted huge crowds.
Material from The Associated Press, The Seattle Times archives and Seattle Times reporter Alexa Vaughn was used in this report.