TOKYO – 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 be begging him to stay.
After Locke’s Nov. 20 resignation announcement, online commentators claimed Beijing’s toxic air was forcing the ambassador back to Seattle, where his family relocated earlier this year. Locke’s denial that he was fleeing to bluer skies couldn’t quell the rumors, which points to one of four ways in which the quiet, unassuming former governor of Washington bruised party egos and influenced outcomes to benefit China’s masses.
First, Locke’s embassy focused a spotlight on air pollution.
It doesn’t take scientific instruments to realize that living in China’s capital is unhealthy — a 10-minute walk will do. But Locke and a courageous U.S. Embassy staff played a crucial role in forcing China to take its blackening skies seriously.
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 sake of 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.”
Far from buckling, the embassy expanded the program to consulates in cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang. Chinese microbloggers seized on the numbers and shared the U.S. data throughout the nation. 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. By standing his ground, 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 — not because he was the first Chinese-American to represent the U.S. in China, but because of the backpack. A photo of Locke wearing a black 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 dead 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 ways that irked Beijing.
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. They applaud when China sends rockets into space, its movies receive Oscars and its athletes win gold medals, and when the nation is touted as the geopolitical power of the future. 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.