The White House has announced President Obama’s intention to nominate Gary Locke, currently the Secretary of Commerce, as Ambassador to China. He would replace Jon Huntsman, who is leaving the post and is considering a run in the 2012 Republican primary.
If confirmed by the Senate, Secretary Locke would face huge tasks (currency, North Korea, the deteriorating rights situation) in a challenging environment (Beijing’s non-conciliatory attitude) and have big shoes to fill (Huntsman’s active role in the post).
What do we know about Gary Locke and what kind of Ambassador would he be, especially on issues close to us like human rights and Tibet?
Notably, he would be the first Chinese-American Ambassador to Beijing. He was born in Seattle; his parents and grandparents migrated to Washington State from Hong Kong.
He acquired a pro-business/pro-trade reputation both during his time as Governor of Washington (1997-2005) and as Commerce Secretary (2009-present).
On its face, such a reputation makes the human rights community nervous, as it suggests the person may put commercial interests ahead of values-based interests like democracy and human rights. It evokes recollection of the 1990s, when Democratic President Clinton de-linked Most Favored Nation status from human rights, and successfully pushed legislation to facilitate China’s entry into the World Trade Organization, absent of human rights conditions.
But consider that Gary Locke’s job as Commerce Secretary is as America’s top advocate for U.S. business. And Washington is home to Boeing and Microsoft, major suppliers to the Chinese market. Professionals like Secretary Locke know to adapt to the demands of a new job, and he is smart enough to know the importance of the human rights portfolio he inherits from Ambassador Huntsman.
Locke’s record as Commerce Secretary was not without its exposure to issues related to human rights. In July 2009, he confronted the Chinese government over a plan to require all computers sold in China to have pre-loaded filtering software (called “green dam”). If implemented, it would have made U.S. software and computer manufacturers complicit in the Chinese Communist Party’s censorship regime.
In 2010, he established a task force to help protect the open flow of information over the Internet (as nations like China suppress the Internet for political control but also to gain a competitive trade advantage). And last month he spoke about the Chinese people’s desire for freedom of information and opined that the government’s crackdown on this freedom could have “disastrous consequences.”
As I mentioned, he has a high standard to meet when he gets to Beijing (again, if confirmed). Jon Huntsman has been praised by human rights activists for using his role as Ambassador to make the case for political prisoners and improvements in human rights. He has acted cleverly, such as his tour of the Wangfujing neighborhood in Beijing where a “Jasmine” protest was announced. Huntsman visited the remote Yushu earthquake site in Kham, and took a trip to Lhasa.
We have seen no record of Gary Locke on Tibet (although if any of our friends in Washington state have anything to report from his time as governor, please let us know). His confirmation hearings will be an opportunity for him to be asked questions about Tibet. Certainly, there is a long list of U.S. policy statements and initiatives on the shelf awaiting him, and we expect that they will be part of his copious briefing books.
Tibet supporters in the United States should make sure they let the Ambassador-designate know that they want Tibet to remain an integral part of the bilateral relationship with China.