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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China

China Gary LockeGary Locke was nominated to be the 10th U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China on March 9, 2011, and unanimously confirmed by the Senate on July 27, 2011. Prior to his current post, Locke served as the Secretary of Commerce in President Obama’s Cabinet. As the administration’s point person for achieving the President’s National Export Initiative, he presided over a dramatic increase in exports and oversaw the president’s export control reform, focused on easing the licensing burden on U.S. businesses for exports to partners and allies. Previously, Locke served two terms as Governor of Washington State, during which time the state strengthened its relationship with China and its exports to China doubled. Locke is the first Chinese-American to serve as Ambassador to China and Secretary of Commerce, as well as the first person of Asian descent to serve as a Governor in the continental United States. Locke earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Yale University and a law degree from Boston University. He is married to Mona Lee Locke, and they have three children: Emily, Dylan, and Madeline.

The Politic: Why did you decide to accept President Obama’s nomination to become Ambassador to China?

First, I would like to say that I really enjoyed being Secretary of Commerce, and we were getting a lot done. We were very focused on the President’s national export initiative, which seeks to double U.S. exports over the next four or five years, and we were well on track with that. I had recently finished completing the 2010 Census and brought it in 25 percent under budget — we had a record mail-back response from the households — and completed the project on time, defying everyone’s expectations. And when I had first come in as Secretary, people had warned me that this was the project most at risk of failure, the endeavor that people were going to be watching closely.

But, after Ambassador [Jon] Huntsman announced that he was leaving, I got a call from the White House, and the President told me, “Gary, you have been an incredible manager — an outstanding manager — but the U.S.-China relationship is the most important relationship in the world today.” He basically said that he needed someone there that he could really trust and count on, and so after a lot of thought and deliberation — it was a tough decision, especially for the family — we decided that it would be a great adventure. And I wanted to help serve our country and the President.

The Politic: I want to take a step back and look at your career as a whole. You started off in politics, representing South Seattle in Washington’s House of Representatives, then becoming the King County executive, and later serving as Governor of Washington for two terms. Did you learn any lessons in politics that have helped you in your later careers, especially as Ambassador?

In all of my years in Washington State politics, I learned to set super-high-stretched goals, to delegate, and to give subordinates the freedom and discretion to operate. I learned to really set priorities and focus on measurements. I do not believe that you can operate government like a business — we certainly aren’t trying to operate prisons for a profit, it would be hard to make a profit while providing medical care for the poor, and you don’t generate a profit trying to clean up the environment. But, you certainly can bring business principles to the operation of government by focusing on priorities, metrics, and outcomes. Making measurements and using them to evaluate your programs is something that we need more of in government.

I brought those principles to how we conducted the census, overhauling the patent office and streamlining economic development grants in the Department of Commerce. It used to take our people eight to nine months to say “yes” to a proposal. When I came in, I said it was important to get this money out to create jobs; if we were in the middle of Hurricane Katrina, we wouldd be working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the thing is that we really have an economic Katrina out there. So, we were able to streamline the process to make a decision in eighteen business days. Eight/nine months down to eighteen business days.

We brought the same ethics to the embassy in Beijing. When I arrived in the summer of 2011, people had to wait seventy days before their visa interview. The summer before that, the people in Beijing had to wait for more than hundred days. If you’re a businessperson and it takes that long to get a visa to America, you would say, “Screw it, I’d rather go buy that product from another country.” If you are planning on visiting Disney World, and it takes that long, you would say, “Screw it, I’d rather go to Disneyworld in Hong Kong or France.” That long process of scheduling visa interviews was hurting the U.S. economy. The average Chinese tourist spends over 7,000 dollars in the U.S. That is money that goes to hotels, restaurants, department stores, taxicab drivers, people in Disneyland. A month and a half after I got here, we decreased the wait time down to five days, without any new people and without spending any extra money.

The Politic: What would you say has been the greatest influence, either an event or a person, on your choice to go into public policy? Was it something at Yale?

I was attending Yale at the height of the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. Yale was a great institution; it had people from all over the country and the world, and there was an atmosphere of debate and critical thinking. And great professors. Very great professors. All this prompted me to go to law school; I wanted to use the law to make change in our society. That being said, when I was thinking about going to law school, I didn’t think I would ever be involved in government or politics. Even after I graduated, I never thought of politics.

The Politic: I want to turn now to your ambassadorship in particular, as well as the U.S.’s relationship with China. Lately, the news has been rife with talk of the recent meeting between President Xi and President Obama. It seems like President Xi is perhaps a new kind of leader, one who is more open to Western-style diplomacy, as can be seen by his willingness to enter into informal talks. Could you comment on President Xi himself and where you see the Chinese-American relationship going?

The U.S.-China relationship is certainly one of the most important — if not the most important — bilateral relationship in the world. Our two economies are so interdependent. That is why the United States very much welcomes a growing, more prosperous China — because a bigger middle class in China means more goods sold from the United States, whether it is food, medical supplies, or technology to clean the air. China also very much wants a strong economic recovery in the United States, because the reality is that the more working Americans there are, the more money the Chinese will have in their pockets. Our farmers depend very much on China, which is America’s number one agricultural export destination. Almost a million jobs in the United States depend on exports in China, and at the same time, millions of jobs in China depend on trade with the United States.

Yes, we have our differences, whether on human rights, political systems, or cultures and languages. But we are so interconnected. That is why it was great to see the two presidents meeting for so many hours this past weekend in California, in such an informal, relaxed manner. It was an opportunity for them to develop a stronger personal and working relationship, as well as to freely discuss the many issues of our common interest, in conjunction with our differences.

The Politic: Would you say that President Xi is a departure from more traditional Chinese politicians?

I am not familiar with many of the past Chinese leaders. Many say that Deng Xiaoping was very engaging, and Jiang Zemin was very gregarious. But let me say that I have found President Xi to be very relaxed; he is self-assured, confident and doesn’t read talking points. He is more casual in conversation and has a very strong interest in closer U.S.-China ties.

Members of a Chinese military honor guard.  China possesses the largest standing army in the world, with roughly 2.3 active personnel; its ground forces alone total 1.7 million soldiers.

Members of a Chinese military honor guard

The Politic: How will the U.S. and China avoid Cold War mentality, especially with the current administration’s so-called “pivot to Asia?”

What differentiates the U.S-China relationship from that of the U.S.-Soviet relationship is that we are so economically interdependent. Both countries recognize it, and the U.S. has repeatedly said that we welcome a growing and prosperous China — albeit one that takes on greater responsibilities in world affairs. There are many common goals between the two nations, whether it is trying to combat piracy off of the African coast, working on peacekeeping in Africa, or, of course, trying to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms. A lot of our scientists are working together closely on trying to find a cure for HIV-Aids and strains of very resistant TB. We are also working together on energy projects. The United States rejects the theory that a rising power must be in conflict with an established power. And the Chinese have been talking about a New Model of engagement between our two powers.

The Politic: In multilateral organizations like the U.N., we see China and the U.S. cooperating on many fronts but disagreeing on many, too, most notably in the U.N. Security Council on humanitarian interventions. What do you think is the U.S. role in promoting human rights in China?

We very much stand for human rights, and we call on all countries, including China, to respect and promote universal human rights — and even human rights enshrined in China’s own constitution. We do have differences. But we’re also very much interested in pursuing a cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China through those areas of common interest.

We are very clear-eyed about the challenges that we face. We need to find ways to cooperate not only on the economic and strategic issues, such as stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran. I think the world is really looking to see the United States and China working together. The big issues that the world faces — especially those in the area of climate change and cybersecurity — cannot be solved by the U.S. alone, nor can they be solved by China alone. We have made it clear that cybersecurity/preventing hacking and cyber-attacks is a major issue for us and must be addressed. The Chinese must investigate what is happening and put an end to it, especially state-sponsored cyber intrusions. We really need to develop rules of the road, international norms to what is expected from governments around the world.

The Politic: I want to touch on the famous incident of Chinese civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng. What implication did his incarceration and treatment have on the U.S. and China relationship, especially over human rights?

Chen Guangcheng (left) with Ambassador Locke (center) and Kurt M. Campbell (Right)

Chen Guangcheng (left) with Ambassador Locke (center) and Kurt M. Campbell (right)

The incident showed that we have differences on human rights but that we are willing to tackle and solve them while pursuing partnerships on the economic front. I think it’s a testament to the strength of the U.S.-China relationship that we were able to resolve that issue and come up with a solution that met the needs of both sides. And it is a testament to the idea that we, the United States, are true to our values.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented in China, and are you pleased with this public perception? If not, how would you improve America’s image?

I think there is a great fascination among the Chinese with America; there is a large fondness for Americans and American society. Our cooperation goes back more than a hundred years. The Chinese, of course, helped finish the intercontinental railroad in the United States, and Chinese immigrants really contributed blood, sweat, and tears to the prosperity of America, especially in the West. You can talk to the everyday Chinese person, and there is a fascination with Americans; American TV shows and movies, along with American culture, are very popular here.

But there is too much of a misunderstanding of our political system and not much understanding of our incredible diversity. So we’re spending a lot of time trying to engage in people-to-people exchanges. That is why we encourage Americans to come to China to study abroad. We have something like 200,000 Chinese students studying in America each year, while we only have around 15,000 Americans studying in China. It is great that we have 200,000 Chinese students in America and over a million Chinese tourists every year, because they have been able to see, firsthand, our way of life and our diversity of peoples and cultures. That exposure to America perhaps creates in the returning Chinese a greater interest in reform in China. But we also need more Americans in China itself. More American students and tourists can be our best ambassadors, showcasing American values and the American way of life, as well as interacting with the Chinese.


Embassy of the United States to China: http://beijing.usembassy-china.org.cn

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