Years before Commerce Secretary Gary Locke’s nomination Wednesday as the next U.S. ambassador to China, he made the first of a series of official visits to the country of his father’s birth, after his election in Washington state as America’s first Chinese American governor.
“He was a rock star. He was treated very much as a head of state there. People in supermarkets came up to him and recognized him,” said Roger Nyhus, Locke’s former communications director.
When Chinese President Hu Jintao made his first state visit to the U.S. in 2006 to meet with then-President George W. Bush, he stopped first in Seattle for a tour at Boeing Co. and dinner at the home of Microsoft founder Bill Gates in a visit coordinated, at the request of the Chinese government, by Locke.
There was a payoff. The Starbucks store Locke helped open in Guangzhou was part of what became a doubling of Washington state exports to China, to more than $5 billion a year.
Locke aggressively talked up Boeing jets, argued for intellectual property protections for Microsoft software, praised the taste of double-shot lattes, played up the healthfulness of Washington state potatoes and pushed, on the U.S. side, for wider freedoms in exporting high-tech equipment to China.
President Obama named him to succeed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in Beijing, calling the relationship with China “one of the most critical of the 21st century.”
Locke, a 61-year-old lawyer by training, comes to what is arguably America’s most crucial foreign diplomatic posting. Many caution that he has little experience in some of the stiffest dilemmas the U.S. faces in its dealings with China: how to manage an increasingly assertive China in talks over North Korea, Iran and possibly now Libya; balancing escalating oil imports and attempts to limit greenhouse gases; ongoing concerns over human rights in China; fractious discord over the valuation of China’s currency.
Though most analysts reckon Locke’s confirmation will be a shoo-in, Republican lawmakers have suggested they may use the occasion to criticize the Obama administration’s China policies. Critics in both parties have complained about the administration’s soft hand in addressing China’s undervalued currency, which many see as a big culprit in the huge U.S. trade deficit with China.
“There are a lot of reasons we could imagine that he’s not going to sail through as he did with his nomination as Commerce secretary,” said David Bachman, a political science professor and former China studies chairman at the University of Washington.
Locke, the son of an immigrant Chinese grocer, spent his early childhood in an ethnically mixed housing project in Seattle.
“It is little over a century that my grandfather first came to America to work as a houseboy for a family in Washington state in exchange for English lessons,” Locke said Wednesday. “I’m going back to the birthplace of my grandfather and father, and I’ll be doing so as a devoted and passionate advocate for America.”
Locke graduated from Yale University in 1972 and earned his law degree from Boston University three years later.
His career in politics began with his election to the Washington state House of Representatives in 1982, where for five years he chaired the appropriations committee and earned an enduring reputation as a technocrat who reveled in the policy details of running government.
Locke went on to become King County executive in 1994 and governor in 1997. As governor, he presided over some of the Oz-like years of the dot-com boom, when the stunning growth of Microsoft, Real Networks and Amazon.com left urban Washington awash in cash; but he also had to oversee years of heavy cuts in public spending that disillusioned some liberal supporters.
One of his lasting imprints was a $3.2-billion package of tax breaks and transportation projects that persuaded Boeing — which had moved its headquarters to Chicago on his watch — to assemble its new 787 Dreamliner in Everett, Wash.
Still, the concessions were controversial, and a $2.4-billion state funding shortfall forced Locke to cut popular programs he had helped create. His approval ratings as governor went from 70%, measured by pollster Stuart Elway in his first term, to 29% before the end of his second term in 2004.
Locke went on to work at the law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine. Al Clark, who formerly headed the firm’s Shanghai office, said Locke made frequent trips to China on behalf of clients, capitalizing on his still-strong contacts in the Chinese government and instincts for negotiating the Chinese bureaucracy.
“I think his ethnic background opened doors for him,” he said.
As Commerce secretary, Locke has worked to successfully forge new opportunities for U.S. companies, said business leaders, who were generally positive about Wednesday’s nomination.
“Over the long run, innovation, economic growth and diplomatic harmony are most effectively achieved by free and fair trade and open dialogue,” said Muhtar Kent, chief executive of the Coca-Cola Co. and chairman of the U.S.-China Business Council. “For these reasons, we are extremely pleased to see Secretary Locke nominated for this vital role.”
David Cote, a Honeywell chief executive who has worked with the administration to open Chinese markets, said, “Locke’s experience in working through tough issues at Commerce and as governor of Washington make him uniquely qualified for this role.”
Christi Parsons and Don Lee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.