The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, has announced that he is stepping down early next year, marking the end of a brief, but testing tenure as Washington’s top representative in the country.
In a statement announcing the decision, Locke says it was the "honor of a lifetime" to serve as ambassador to China. He said during his time in office, U.S. exports to the country grew and more Chinese were able to travel to the United States because of reduced visa wait times.
Locke said he also helped advance American values by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers and by visiting China's Tibet and Xinjiang regions, where ethnic minorities complain about, what they say are, the Chinese government’s discriminatory policies.
Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng listens to a reporter's question during a press conference at the Taiwan Association for China Human Rights building in Taipei, Taiwan, June 24, 2013.
During his time in office, Ambassador Locke had to handle his fair share of challenges, including the flight of ousted politician Bo Xilai’s police chief to a U.S. Consulate as well as the dispute over blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng.
Concerns over cyber-attacks have also continued to cloud relations between the two countries, especially following the flight of former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden to Hong Kong and his disclosure of Washington’s cyber activities.
Shi Yinhong, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University, said the ambassador’s low-key approach has helped the countries wade through their challenges.
“Several times the situation has been quite tense, with strategic rivalries and sometimes human rights disagreements, but the ambassador himself almost never publicly talked about these things and this is also helpful,” Shi said.
China and the United States face a broad range of challenges ranging from disputes over trade issues to tensions in the region over territorial disputes. But the challenges Locke faced while in office were nothing new, according to James Nolt, a professor at the New York Institute of Technology’s Nanjing campus.
“I think Gary Locke represented continuity," Nolt said. " I think he was a professional ambassador who did his job well. But I don't think the individual incidents really so much indicate a change in policy as they might indicate a change in the public understanding of politics and what is going on…they might be irritating to one side or the other, but the larger relationship will continue.”
Reason for leaving
Chen Qi, a specialist in Sino-U.S. relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, said the challenges Locke faced could also be part of the reason why he is leaving.
Chen does not think this is because Obama does not trust Locke, nor because Washington thinks he did not do a good job. Chen said he thinks it is because Locke believes he has done a good job and wants some rest now and time to make some changes in his life.
The flight of Wang Lijun to the U.S. consulate in February of 2012 revealed one of China’s biggest political scandals in decades and led to the downfall of rising political start Bo Xilai. Wang later left the consulate and was taken into custody by Chinese authorities.
Two months later, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and was given shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Despite the embarrassment the incident brought to Chinese authorities, they eventually allowed Chen and his family to leave the country and travel to the United States.
Locke began his post in Beijing in July 2011. He was the first Chinese-American to serve as the United States top representative in China.
U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke speaks during a news conference in the courtyard of his residence in Beijing, China, Aug. 14, 2011.
Locke said he told President Obama about his decision earlier this month and that he plans to join his wife and three children in the western coastal city of Seattle after leaving early next year.
Just days after becoming ambassador, Locke was photographed by a Chinese citizen while standing in line at a Starbucks Coffee shop in Seattle carrying his own luggage and attempting to pay with a discount coupon.
The photo stirred up a lot of discussion online in China, with many noting that Chinese officials rarely carry out such small tasks and are usually surrounded by a large entourage of security.
His resignation was a hot topic online Wednesday on Chinese social media sites, with many jokingly saying that he was probably trying to get out of Beijing to clean his lungs and get away from the capital’s notorious smog.