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Gary Locke On Lessons Learned During Public Service And What Comes Next

Ng Han Guan
AP Photo/Pool
Outgoing U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke gestures as he speaks during a farewell press conference held at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014.

It may sound like the life of a movie star or famous athlete: posing for a magazine cover, having your picture taken at restaurants and gaining international attention by simply ordering a cup of coffee. But we’re talking about Gary Locke.

The former Washington governor and commerce secretary is now back in the Seattle area, after serving two years as the U.S. ambassador to China, and sat down with KPLU for his first radio interview since his return.

On The Cover Of Men’s Health Magazine

Before diving into politics, U.S.-China relations or how it feels to be home, a lean and smiling Gary Locke talks about exercise.  He says he worked out with a trainer three times a week in China. The Chinese edition of Men’s Health magazine featured him on the cover of its February edition.

Now that he’s back, Locke says he doesn’t have an exercise routine, yet.

“My son is really getting into exercising and everything, you know, with all the sports at school and everything else, so he’s kind of pushing me,” he said.

‘It Was Time To Come Home’

Locke’s wife, Mona, and their three children are the reason he left his post.

“Our kids have really been moving around so much over the last 10, 12 years, so many different schools that they’ve been to. And as they’re entering into the high school age, we really felt that it was important that they come back and be here in one school for several years as they get ready for college,” he said. “And we’ve been away from Seattle, which is really home, for the last four or five years, and it was time to come home.”

The family’s new home is on the Eastside, but it’s the same old Gary Locke. He recently installed a hot-water dispenser in his kitchen.

"The plumbing underneath that particular sink was so convoluted, but we got it done,” he said.

Reducing Wait Times For U.S. Visas

Whether at home or at work, Locke loves to fix things. I saw that firsthand when I worked for him in the governor’s office.

While in China, Locke fixed a problem that some say is his signature achievement as ambassador: vastly reducing the wait times for U.S. visas.

“It used to take anywhere from seven to 10 weeks for a Chinese business or tourist to get a visa to come to the United States. We were able to reduce that down to three to five days. And the demand for visas to come to the United States has grown by 70 percent during that period of time. So, I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said.

Experts say it was one of the biggest issues that Locke faced when he arrived in August of 2011 as the first Chinese-American ambassador to China.

The Picture That Preceded His Reputation

Before Locke even got to China, his reputation as a do-it-yourself guy spread around the world. It stemmed from a photograph taken of Locke trying to use a coupon at a Starbucks counter at SeaTac Airport. Wearing a backpack, with no security around.

“It was really so funny because the Chinese, from that photograph, knew when I was arriving, and we had never told the press. I don’t even know who took that photograph from behind. But from that, the Chinese press were able to figure when we were arriving, and they met us at the airport.

“They saw us carrying our own luggage, which was completely strange and new to the people of China because government officials travel with huge entourages and have everything taken care of for them. People were always taking pictures of us, coming up to us in restaurants, wanting pictures.

“The Chinese people were so great, so warm, so friendly, so welcoming. And our reception was just terrific. But it was also an opportunity for us to showcase just how friendly, casual, easygoing Americans are, regardless of your position,” he said.

Pushing For Human Rights, Improving U.S. Exports

Locke hasn't been easygoing about the issue of human rights in China. From a man known for quietly getting things done, he’s been very vocal on this topic.

“That’s one of the highlights of American foreign policy, and one of the key tenets of American foreign policy: encouraging and really pushing for respect for universal human rights,’ he said. “And we believe that it’s in every country’s political, economic and social self-interest to adhere to the universal declarations of human rights.”

Locke was thrust into the international spotlight on the issue when blind dissident Chen Guangcheng escaped from beatings suffered under house arrest and sought refuge in the U.S. Embassy. It happened less than a year after Locke arrived in Beijing.

“It was a very trying several weeks, first taking care of him, keeping it under wraps that he was even at the embassy, then meeting with the Chinese government. And we were able to reach an accommodation that protected his interests, that achieved all of his objectives and the objectives he had for his family,” he said.

Locke is proud of some other accomplishments as ambassador.

“American exports to China, while I was there, was growing at almost twice the rate of U.S. exports to the rest of the world,” he said. “Chinese investment in the United States during the two years that I was there was more than $21 billion, which is more than the previous 11 years combined.”

World Needs Leadership From Both U.S., China

Locke says he doesn’t have any political aspirations. He’s working as a consultant in the private sector, and has not left China behind.

“Helping Chinese companies set up operations and factories here, to helping American companies grow and expand, and set up products and services into China. [I’m] discussing now with several American and Chinese companies on serving as an advisor.

“But we really need to also focus more on people-to-people relations, and that’s one of the things that Mona and I intend to stay involved in. Not just trade issues, but really encouraging more understanding among our peoples. More Americans need to travel to China to study in China and learn the language and the culture, but we also want to encourage more cooperation between Chinese and American colleges and universities, nonprofit organizations.

“Because so many of the problems facing the world today cannot be solved by the United States or by China alone. The world is really looking for leadership and partnership in both China and the United States to tackle these issues, whether it’s climate changes, preventing terrorism or the proliferation of nuclear weapons, to curing some of the most dreaded diseases around the world.

“The world is looking for leadership from both China and the United States," Locke said.

Kirsten Kendrick hosts Morning Edition on KNKX and the sports interview series "Going Deep," talking with folks tied to sports in our region about what drives them — as professionals and people.