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Interview: Former U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke

Ambassador Gary Locke

(Harvard Political Review) – Born in Seattle, Washington, Gary Locke, a third-generation Chinese American, served as the first governor of Asian descent in the continental United States, as the 21st governor of Washington from 1997 to 2005. Following that experience, he served in the Obama administration as United States Secretary of Commerce from 2009 to 2011, and later as U.S. ambassador to China from 2011 to 2014. Read on for a transcript of the interview. 

Harvard Political Review: Your political career spans over thirty years and has involved work at all levels of government. Talk about your early days in politics and walk us through your ascent.

Gary Locke: When I was growing up—and even through college and law school—I never thought I’d be involved in government or politics. I was interested in government as a political science, but I actually studied developing countries and things like that. I actually thought I’d be a community lawyer, but I ended up being a deputy prosecutor and just loved that, loved the trial work. But I started getting very involved in community affairs—the Asian-American economic justice, affirmative action issues—and then started helping out on other people’s campaigns and really enjoyed it. And then people said, “Hey Gary, you know you should run office.” I said, “Me?”

HPR: Fast forward to your time in China. How did you take charge of one of America’s most important embassies?

GL: It was an incredible experience and a great experience for the entire family: not knowing really what to expect. It’s one of the largest embassies that we have throughout the world. Some forty different agencies have offices at the U.S. embassy, all the way from the IRS to the FBI, the coast guard, even drug administration. The challenge was trying to get all the different agencies—for instance, the law enforcement agencies—to work together and collaborate instead of working in silos, even within economic issues, the commercial areas. We have a thousand employees at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. One third are American. They serve three-year stints, and so it’s overlapping. Every year, one third of the American staff changes over. It was a great experience.

We were able, I think, from day one to establish a theme. Unbeknownst to myself and my family, we were photographed as we were at the international airport on our way to Beijing. I was ordering a cup of coffee and drinks for the family at a Starbucks. I had a backpack on standing with my seven-year-old daughter, ordering coffee, and some person took a picture of us—I don’t know who it was. It went viral, and so that alerted the Chinese press to when we were coming and which airline we were flying. They figured out there’s only one airline about that time leaving Seattle; it must be Delta Airlines. So they were waiting for us at the airport, and they saw us coming down the escalator carrying all these bags—luggage and backpacks and duffel bags and things like that—which created a stir in China because government officials, number one, don’t order and get their own coffee, don’t stand in line, and certainly don’t carry their own luggage. They have entourages of staff that take care of their every need, whether it’s holding an umbrella or serving them a meal at a banquet or something like that. We created quite a stir in terms of doing everything on our own. But it created very positive images and affections from the Chinese people toward us—our entire family.

HPR: You were the first Chinese-American to run the embassy in Beijing. Interestingly, the Chinese government sometimes struggled with the issue of your heritage. At the end of your term, China’s state news agency put out a rather nasty farewell statement, which included several racial slurs. Why might Beijing have disapproved of your being Chinese?

GL: Well, that editorial was put out by the propaganda department of the Chinese government, but the Chinese government officials themselves were always very open and very cordial. In fact, veterans at the State Department and at the U.S. embassy have said that I had more access to high-ranking Chinese government officials than any previous U.S. ambassador. So while the official line was maybe to try to cut me down to size, both the Chinese people were very warm and gracious and friendly and accommodating to us, as well as the Chinese government officials.

HPR: Why would China target you specifically?

GL: I think they were really trying to make sure that I was not too popular because of this laid-back, casual, friendly style that all Americans are known for. You know, flying economy class when all their officials fly first class. Their officials live in guarded and gated compounds and have access to the very best health care, and everyday people don’t. The government officials are treated lavishly—to large banquets and things like that. The people were starting to say, “Why can’t our Chinese government officials be like Ambassador Locke?” So that was creating a little bit of tension there. I think the propaganda department was trying to make sure that I was not too popular. They even felt that Vice President Biden’s trip to China in 2011—where he went to a noodle shop to sit down and have a meal with the everyday people—they felt that that was an imperialist plot by the Americans to destabilize the Chinese government.

So they were very fearful of that, but what’s ironic is that, over time, the new president, President Xi, started issuing orders saying the Chinese government officials needed to start flying economy class. They need to cut down on these lavish banquets. The number of courses at these banquets had to be limited. Less flowers, less red carpet treatment in a lot of the ceremonies. I think they were beginning to understand that, for the sake of their own security—domestic security, political security—they needed to, in some ways, emulate the style of American diplomats.

HPR: You bring up an interesting point about Xi Jinping’s conservative leadership style. What other differences did you notice between Xi and his predecessor, Hu Jintao?

GL: President Xi has amassed and consolidated power much faster than any previous leader in Chinese history. [There have been] many articles written about how he’s developed almost a cult-like personality. The Chinese people revere him, adore him. He’s certainly taken on, and become the center of, many of these reform efforts and task forces that report directly to him, or which he leads. He’s really at the center of a lot of the things that are happening in China, for better or worse.

He’s moved very very aggressively. He’s really going after corruption and also because they feel corruption is a threat to the sanctity and the legitimacy of the Communist Party. And some people are saying that he’s also using threats of prosecution for corruption to make sure that people who may disagree with some of his views tone down their criticism. Otherwise, they could be hauled up on a charge of corruption themselves.

HPR: A few months ago, the host of a major Chinese talk show called Mao a “son of a bitch.” Chinese media promptly pulled the clip off the air, and the show went on a six-month hiatus. Clearly, the Communist Party still takes its myths pretty seriously. What role does the party play in modern society?

GL: The party is still very very strong and the center of the power. [China] is still a communist country, although they’re opening up and becoming much more capitalistic. Entrepreneurship is strong and thriving in China, and you have—I think—over a million millionaires and more billionaires in China today than there are in America. The rise of the middle class has just been astounding, just in the last decade or so from a very small percentage of the urban population to more than half of the urban population. So the economic progress under entrepreneurship and capitalism-driven society—or emulating capitalism—has had profound effects. But it is still authoritarian. It is still run by the Communist Party, and the Chinese leaders view a lot of these issues—whether it’s corruption or unemployment, even pollution—as threats to the authority, the viability, the strength of the Communist Party, which is why you’re also seeing crackdowns against journalists and human rights activists, even women who are trying to stamp out sexual harassment….

HPR: In the past year, China has experienced significant economic stagnation. Last July, there were days when stocks at the Shanghai exchange would lose ten percent of their value—which is the daily drop limit in China—in just a few minutes. Now, Xi has announced that the People’s Bank has lowered its 2016 growth target to 6.5 percent. Were there any indicators of the impending crisis while you were in the country?

GL: I think a lot of people were indicating that this very high level of growth could not be sustained and that there would be problems even trying to enact some of the reforms. When you try to break up some of these government-owned businesses that are very inefficient and where you also have excessive capacity—to many producers of steel or coal—that, if you try to really reform them and make them efficient, you’re going to have a lot of problems and you’re going to perhaps create more unemployment. But they know they need to move away from heavy industry. They need to move away from low-cost, low-wage export manufacturing to a more innovative society [with] more domestic consumption. A lot of these reforms will cause a lot of disruption. They know that. And then, of course, the slow growth has been compounded by the slowdown of the world economy because China’s also making things and exporting and selling it to the rest of the world, and if the rest of the world isn’t in a buying mood—because of their rough economies and because people don’t have money in their pockets—that affects the employment and the strength of the economy in China.

We do live in a very global economy, an intertwined global economy. So I think people saw this coming. People saw this coming.

HPR: Would you characterize China’s economic stagnation as a crisis?

GL: Well, it’s a slowdown, but the Chinese government also has many levers and tools at its disposal to try to prop up and sustain the economy, just as the United States had a stimulus package, and many other countries around the world are also engaging in having more intervention by their governments to really try to smoothen the economic turmoil.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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