A good friend of China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2009, 12:00am

Few, if any, Americans can claim to have the ear of China's leadership like Gary Locke, US President Barack Obama's nominee for commerce secretary.

His contacts in Beijing go right to the top: he has several times had private meetings with President Hu Jintao.

The much-published photograph of him toasting the Chinese leader with a mug of Starbucks' coffee in Seattle in 2006, at the start of a state visit, says much about the relationship.

Such ties are being hailed by supporters of Mr Locke's nomination as being globally beneficial. Part of the job is to promote US trade internationally and he is well versed in the area, particularly when it comes to China. The top-level meetings he has held, trade delegations he has led and negotiations he has been involved in have made him an expert in the workings of the country considered by many to be instrumental in rescuing the world from the economic crisis.

That is not to say that all who have had dealings with Mr Locke, 59, have faith in his abilities.

His two terms as governor of Washington state garnered him numerous critics.

They saw his policies, such as laying off thousands of state workers, freezing wages and other cost-cutting measures during the financial troubles of 2001, as ineffective or destructive.

Several election campaign financial scandals erupted during his governorship, but he was always cleared of wrongdoing.

His poorly received response on behalf of the Democratic party to former president George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address garnered a flood of angry phone calls, letters and even threats to him and his family; a columnist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper suggested the outbursts were in large part the reason he decided against running for a third term in 2004. He cited a wish to spend more time with his family.

Mr Locke backed Mr Obama's challenger, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the Democratic presidential nomination. Despite this, pundits tipped he would be chosen by Mr Obama to be his secretary of the interior. A more appropriate choice was commerce secretary, but as it happened, he was not the president's first or even second choice; only when they dropped out of the race was his name announced on Wednesday.

Mr Locke perfectly fits the 'time for a change' agenda proclaimed by Mr Obama. He would be the second Chinese-American and third Asian-American in the cabinet - more than any previous president has chosen. He is also living proof of the fabled 'American dream' - that anything is possible in the US.

Mr Locke was the US' first ethnic Chinese governor. His grandfather left his family and China more than 100 years ago on a steamship bound for America. There, he worked as a houseboy for a family in exchange for English lessons.

His home was less than 2km from the governor's mansion in the Washington state capital, Olympia - where Mr Locke and his family later lived.

Although Mr Locke was born and raised in Seattle, his father was from Taishan in Guangdong and his mother from Hong Kong.

His grandfather sent money back to China and then returned, had a family and went back to the US to earn more.

'He made trips back to China and had more children and eventually brought the whole family, including my father, who was a teenager at the time,' Mr Locke told the South China Morning Post in an interview in 2005.

'My father served in the US army during the second world war and was in the Normandy invasion. After the war, he went back to China, met my mum in Hong Kong and they got married and came back to Seattle, and that's where I and my brothers and sisters were born.'

Those Chinese links were solidified by marrying a woman who, although born in California, had parents from Shanghai.

His wife, Mona, is a former Seattle television news reporter. The couple have three children.

Mr Locke recalled first coming to Hong Kong as a boy in 1961.

'The border with China had just been closed and there were thousands and thousands of refugees on the hillsides and on doorsteps,' he said. 'There was water rationing. I remember being at the Star Ferry on the Hong Kong side, getting ready to visit my paternal grandmother who lived on the Kowloon side, and looking at all the raw sewage that was being pumped into the harbour. My grandmother lived under very tough conditions.'

His beginnings were humble, but he worked hard. Through part-time jobs, scholarships and financial assistance, he earned a political science degree from Yale University. In 1975 he graduated from Boston University's law school. He was elected to the Washington state House of Representatives in 1982 and served for 11 years until becoming the US' first Chinese-American county executive - a post he held until he won the governorship in 1996.

At the helm of a state that has a rich Chinese heritage and is home to Microsoft, Boeing and Starbucks, he was soon heading trade delegations to China, on one trip meeting Mr Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

He first met Mr Hu in San Francisco in 2002, when Mr Hu was vice-president. They met again in September 2004 on the sidelines of the Communist Party's Congress in Beijing. Mr Hu had been elevated to the presidency and Mr Locke defied diplomatic odds by privately spending more than an hour with him. Seattle was subsequently scheduled to be the first port of call for Mr Hu's maiden trip to the US as president a year later.

Mr Locke headed a bidding war with other US cities for the honour. With 10 days before a decision was to be made, he lined up a tour of the Boeing factory and Microsoft campus. Dinner with Microsoft boss Bill Gates and wife Melinda was organised. The city's tallest building, the Columbia Tower, with commanding views across the state, was chosen for Mr Hu's landmark arrival speech.

Mr Locke's presentation won. But Mr Hu's trip was cancelled after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and threw the Bush administration and the nation into chaos. The visit eventually went ahead in April 2006.

Mr Locke has been a political trailblazer for America's ethnic Chinese. The Democratic Party considered him for presidential hopeful Al Gore's running mate in the 2000 election and there was at one time even talk that he would run for the presidency in 2008.

But it is not ethnicity alone that has enabled Mr Locke to build ties with Mr Hu.

He has shown himself to be a good friend and partner of China.

While governor, he led efforts among his US counterparts to grant China most-favoured-nation trading status and to have it join the World Trade Organisation. He helped boost trade between his state and the mainland and Taiwan, in the process establishing a trade representative in Guangzhou.

His decision to not continue as governor did not mean stepping back. He joined the international law firm Davis Wright Tremaine as a partner and is co-chair of its China practice and active in governance and energy issues. This means regular trips to the mainland.

He has also remained a member of the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-Americans who promote links between the US and China.

As commerce secretary, Mr Locke would head a diverse agency. Apart from overseeing international trade, it also comprises the National Weather Service, the Census and fisheries.

Crucially, he would be part of Mr Obama's economic team. Given his connections, it is a responsibility he would seem well suited to carrying out with aplomb.