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Populist style natural for Gary Locke, says American academic

Gary Locke and his wife Mona Lee Photo:

Gary Locke, American ambassador to China, is about to leave his post at the beginning of 2014. “I would aboard the plane with my family on March 1, and wave goodbye to China as the ambassador,” he said in a recent TV interview in China. Chinese people may remember the “seemingly high-profile” American diplomat for his populist style and soft power.

Quite a lot of Chinese common people and experts in international relations questioned Gary Locke for the sensation he had created. So, what is Gary Locke’s true face? Sino-US talked with Bruce Larson, Associate Professor of Political Science at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, who has served as a Fulbright Lecturer at China Foreign Affairs University for the fall 2013 semester.

In a recent TV interview, Gary Locke said he’s done with politics, and would return to family life; while his wife Mona Lee joked that he said the same thing after quitting the governor’s job for Washington State several years before.  Now, many people wonder what would be Mr. Locke’s plan back in the US. There are speculations that he may run for the US presidency, and also that he will really quit politics and seek to be employed by international companies.

Sino-US: So, do you have any speculations or expectations about Locke’s next move?

Bruce Larson: My sense is that Mr. Locke will go into business and try to make some money.  He has many connections from his career in government, and knowledge of trade, commerce, and politics would be very valuable to many multinational firms.   There is not much he can do in politics right now.   He has already been governor of Washington State, and Washington State’s two U.S. Senators—Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray (both Democrats)—were both recently reelected and don’t have any plans to leave the Senate.

Sino-US: Also, we’re wondering that in the American political world, would Mr. Locke’s identity as a Chinese American affect his career in some way or hurt his chances to get top positions like presidency.

Larson: I don’t think Locke’s Chinese-American identity would hurt him in seeking the presidency--especially as the number of Chinese Americans in the U.S. grows.  But Mr. Locke is actually not that well known by many Americans, so it is more likely he would be selected to run as a vice-presidential candidate than run as a president.  As a vice-presidential candidate, Locke’s Chinese-American identity would help the presidential candidate secure the support of Chinese-American voters.

Sino-US: Would you like to comment on the status quo of American politicians of Chinese ancestry? What are their specific challenges or opportunities?

Larson: There are an increasing number of Chinese-American candidates running—and winning—for political office in the United States.  They tend to run for state and local offices first, and mostly in areas with large Chinese-American populations (such as Cupertino, California, and Montgomery County, Maryland).

As the US ambassador to China, Gary Locke is generally regarded by China’s public opinions represented by social media to have cleverly advocated American values and made corrupt Chinese public servants look bad. He used coupon for coffee, flying economy class, and refusing to reside in luxury hotels. And more significantly, he had successfully drawn public attention to China’s toxic air problems.

Sino-US: In your viewpoint, was he just doing the natural thing or such kind of acts might have been staged?

Larson: I think this kind of behavior comes naturally to Mr. Locke—and to many American politicians who hold or who have held elective office.  In the U.S., it is really difficult to win election to a high political office (governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House) without knowing how to successfully engage in “retail” politics.  Most successful politicians in the U.S. are very good at making themselves seem like ordinary people. This helps them to connect with voters and to win votes at election time.

Sino-US: Mr. Locke was several times criticized by China’s state media for “putting on quite a show”. Would you guess the US government is behind the populist style of the ambassador?

Larson: No, not at all. Again, a populist style comes naturally to many American politicians.  Mr. Locke himself might have decided to accentuate his populist style somewhat while in Beijing, but I doubt this is something very intentional by the U.S government.  U.S. politicians are very independent minded in terms of style; and most probably wouldn’t listen to anyone who told them what kind of style to have.

Sino-US: Ambassador Locke has gained stardom in China compared with his predecessors. What do you think may be the reasons?

Larson: Mr. Locke has a very public persona. He seemed very accessible and more out in the open than most ambassadors.  The fact that he seemed like a normal, everyday person is probably something Chinese people found attractive.  Interestingly, I would guess that Mr. Locke may be more well-known in China than in the United States.

Sino-US: As a political science scholar, how would you regard Gary Locke as the ambassador to China, or as a political figure? What do you think are Locke’s major achievements in Beijing?

Larson: I would regard Mr. Locke as a successful political figure.  In each of the major political positions in which he has served—Governor of Washington, Secretary of Commerce, and Ambassador to China—he has accomplished some important things.  I would say his most important accomplishments as U.S. ambassador to China have been (1) to streamline the visa process for Chinese applying for U.S. visas and (2) to encourage more Chinese investment in the United States.

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