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  • Updated: 10:34pm

Man of many firsts, with impeccable connections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2011, 12:00am

When US President Barack Obama formally named Commerce Secretary Gary Locke as his choice as America's next ambassador to China on Wednesday, he was giving the former governor of Washington state a chance to add another first to his CV.

The first state governor of Asian descent in US history and the first Chinese-American to represent the US Department of Commerce in the cabinet looks set to become the country's first ethnic Chinese envoy to the land of his father's birth when Jon Huntsman steps down at the end of next month.

Locke may not have shown Huntsman's enthusiasm for speaking Putonghua in public, but he is married to Sun Yat-sen's great-granddaughter. His wife's grandmother was married to Sun Ke, Sun Yat-sen's only son.

However, Locke has not been picked for the colour of his skin and his marital guanxi alone. The 61-year-old has a strong background in China relations in his own right and one that few US-based politicians could hope to rival. Who else could lay claim to having the ear of the mainland's top leadership?

The Seattle-born son of immigrants - his father was born in Taishan, Guangdong, his mother came from Hong Kong - was instrumental in making his hometown the first port of call on President Hu Jintao's inaugural state visit to the US in 2006. Hu's visit had originally been planned for 2004, when Locke was still governor, but was postponed when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

Locke first met Hu in San Francisco in 2002, when Hu was vice-president. They met again to talk for more than an hour on the sidelines of the Communist Party Congress while Locke was heading a trade delegation to Beijing in 2004 - defying diplomats' advice that talks with state leaders were out of the question.

Locke's links to Chinese leaders are not limited to the present day. His wife's paternal grandmother was married to one of Sun Yat-sen's sons, giving Locke a personal connection to the father of the nation.

Beijing yesterday welcomed Locke's nomination. 'China welcomes the nomination of Gary Locke as ambassador to China,' Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said. 'China-US relations are extremely important. We hope that the new ambassador appointed by the US can play an active role in promoting China-US relations toward greater developments,' Jiang said. She did not elaborate.

China relations have been a recurring theme of his two years at the helm of the Commerce Department, a reflection of the significance of Sino-US trade to both countries.

Locke has consistently pushed for improving trade relations as a means to closer diplomatic ties with China.

Having led trade delegations to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, he is already a familiar face with diplomatic staff in the country, which cannot fail to ease the transition.

But Locke is not without his detractors.

On his nomination for the post of commerce secretary in 2009, Time magazine described him as a 'staid character' who displayed 'a remarkable ability to say nothing of note'.

In office, when Locke has said things of note, it has tended to land him in trouble.

Heading a trade delegation to Shanghai in 2009, he told the city's American Chamber of Commerce that US consumers 'quite frankly' needed to pay for the carbon emissions of polluting Chinese factories making cheap products. He quickly issued a retraction after anger from US Republican politicians.

Though he started his governorship of Washington with high popularity ratings in 1996 and easily won a second term, his latter days in office were dogged by controversy, leading to him standing down in 2005.

In 2003, his Democratic Party rebuttal to then US president George W Bush's state-of-the-union address was so lacklustre, his office was overloaded with phone calls and letters, some containing racial slurs and threats against Locke and his family. Locke's father, Jimmy Locke, has been described as a major influence.

The elder Locke, who died in Seattle in January, aged 93, first arrived in the US from Guangdong at the age of 13. He worked as a cook and served in the US Army, but it was in the Seattle grocery store he owned that he drilled his work ethic into the young Gary - who served behind the till to help pay his way through college.

Obama's choice of a cabinet member to lead the embassy in Beijing is telling, according to Douglas Paal, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. 'He's trying to send a message to the Chinese that he thinks it's an important relationship,' he said.

Paal described Locke as a good choice due to his skill at navigating the rocky terrain of trade disputes and well-equipped to communicate issues to US Congress members.

He would have the potential to pick up where his predecessor left off, Paal said. Locke shares with Huntsman an emphasis on commercial ties, rather than coming from a military or security background.

'I think it's fair to say he's a rock star in China,' said Martha Duggan, an executive with Michigan-based manufacturer United Solar who travelled with Locke as part of a clean energy trade mission to Hong Kong and mainland cities last year. 'He gets crowds wherever he goes.'

As ambassador, Locke will have less opportunity to formulate US policy than in his current position in the cabinet, analysts say.

Still, in a mark of the importance of the US-China relationship, there is little indication that the move is seen as a step down for Locke.

Instead, his tenure as commerce secretary gave him an advantage, said Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. 'It's important that he knows the president personally,' Lieberthal said.

But his real expertise is in local government, and in nurturing business ties that help both economies.

'There's every reason to believe he'll be very effective,' Lieberthal said.

Locke's appointment will need approval by the Senate, which confirmed his position as commerce secretary without much fuss.

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