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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

November 21, 2013 at 10:32 AM

Mr. Locke goes to Beijing (and leaves)

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, center, is mobbed by journalists as he attends the opening session of the annual National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, center, is mobbed by journalists as he attends the opening session of the annual National People’s Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

By all accounts, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke was a highly effective and popular ambassador to China. As the first Chinese-American to hold the post, he received intense coverage in Chinese media.

The Chinese people loved his common touch. Photos of Locke standing in line at a Starbucks and carrying his own backpack went viral, a noticable contrast to the “princelings” that run the country and enjoy lavish lifestyles. He also cultivated a good relationship with China’s new reforming President Xi Jinping.

Locke also irritated the Communist bosses by making public Beijing’s air quality with the popular PM 2.5 air quality report and granting protection to Chongqing’s former police chief and blind activist Chen Guangcheng.

And his decision to resign and return to Seattle so he could be with his children in high school is perfectly understandable.

No ambassador can be detached from the administration whose policies he carries out. For Locke, this meant explaining to Beijing the Obama “pivot to Asia,” while also working for a healthier balance between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 economies. With China becoming more assertive, including against U.S. allies, this can’t have been easy.

Much of this is beyond the purview of this blog. But I recommend reading Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, by Rana Mitter. It goes far in explaining to Westerners not only China’s ordeal in the war, but the situation today.

He notes that today the ghost of Chang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader who lost the civil war after World War II and whose regime took refuge on Taiwan, would look on today’s China and nod with approval. It is a world power, governed by one party and using a market economy. Importantly, it has cleansed China of foreign encroachment and humiliations, working toward the ideals of revolutionary founder Sun Yat-sen.

The shade of Mao Zedong, on the other hand, would wander around with his head in his hands, his own revolutionary ideals in tatters. (Interestingly, the Communist Party has been rehabilitating Chang’s reputation and has lovingly restored the house in Chongqing where he led China during World War II).

From an economic standpoint, Locke can point to increased Chinese investment in the United States, $19.5 billion in 2012 and the first nine months of this year. It was $17 billion for the preceding 11 years. Washington’s exports to China grew from $11.2 billion in 2011 to $14.2 billion last year.

But China’s neo-mercantilist policies, America’s massive and job-killing trade deficit, and China’s own economic challenges are beyond the portfolio of any one ambassador.

The Global Times writes of Locke’s tenure:

Locke and the U.S. Embassy caused some awkward situations for China. But they also have become part of the reasons to drive China to reform. Locke has made us fully aware how easily American elements could affect China’s grass-roots society and how easily China’s internal problems could be politicized in light of a big gap between Chinese and American soft power.

Speaking of which, America did much to improve its soft-power in Asia with a robust response to the typhoon in the Philippines, while China seemed petty, sending little aid because of the two countries’ maritime dispute.

Locke leaves Beijing with Chimerica stronger, even if disputes and challenges remain. It’s complicated.

And Don’t Miss: Why JP Morgan may have gotten a good deal in settlement with the feds | NY Times

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Bill Gates got weepy

As SteveB prepares to leave

The stock price left smiles

 

 

Comments | More in China economy and business | Topics: Gary Locke

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