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Talk Asia

Interview with U.S. Ambassador to China, Gary Locke.

Aired November 25, 2011 - 05:30   ET



KRISTIE LU STOUT, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR (voiceover): It's the photo that became an internet sensation in China. A typical American traveler buying a Starbuck's coffee at the Seattle airport.

But this is Gary Locke, the new U.S. Ambassador to China, on his way to present his credentials in Beijing. For a Chinese public not used to such easy access to officialdom, it was a unique insight into the low-key approach of the new U.S. envoy. When the photo was posted by a fellow traveler on Chinese microblogging site, Sina Weibo, it was reposted more than 40,000 times in two days.

But Gary Locke's laid-back approach to officialdom was not all that caught the interest of the Chinese public. The former U.S. Commerce Secretary is also the first Chinese-American to take the job.

GARY LOCKE, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: I'm deeply humbled and honored to be chosen as your next ambassador to China.

STOUT (voiceover): His grandfather was born in a village in China's southern Guangdong Province. He immigrated to Seattle more than a century ago and worked as a servant just a mile from the house where his grandson would later live as a two-term governor of Washington State.

This week on "Talk Asia", we meet Ambassador Gary Locke in Beijing and travel with him to his ancestral home in China's South.


STOUT: Mr. Ambassador, welcome to "Talk Asia".

LOCKE: It's my pleasure to be on your show.

STOUT: Now, one hundred years ago, your grandfather left China on a steamboat to go to the United States and he worked as a domestic servant there. One century on, you have returned to China as America's top diplomat. Have you reflected on this achievement?

LOCKE: Well, actually, all through the years, I've been able to reflect on it and it's really hard to believe. I mean, my grandfather worked as a houseboy for a family in the State Capital. Washing dishes, sweeping floors, in exchange for English lessons. He went back to China, had a family, where my father was born along with aunts and uncles. Grandfather came back to the United States to support the family. Eventually, went back to China, brought the whole family over.

And a hundred years later, actually, I was sworn in as the governor of the state of Washington. Literally, one mile from the house where my grandfather worked. And we kind of joked, and I kind of threw out a line at the inaugural speech, that it took our family one hundred years to travel one mile. And then, of course, I became commerce secretary and my dad was so proud to be there at the swearing-in ceremony, presided over by President Obama. But I think he would have been more proud to know that his son was returning to the ancestral homeland where he was born and where our ancestors were born, representing the United States as the U.S. Ambassador to China.

STOUT: You previously served as U.S. Commerce Secretary, then you made the move to China. How has it been, swapping Washington D.C. for Beijing?

LOCKE: Well, it's very, very different. And, obviously, a different culture, a different land, different history, different language. It's also a great privilege to serve the American People, the American President in this very, very, important post. Perhaps, one of the most important relationships in the world, today.

STOUT: What are your top priorities?

LOCKE: Well, we have a lot, obviously, because of the tough economy in the United States. Job creation is number one. And, of course, we care about things like intellectual property rights, making sure that the hard won gains, innovations, of Americans are not ripped off without proper compensation. We also care about human rights - making sure that American values of freedom and universal human rights, which even China has written into their constitution and has signed on to, are observed here.

And, of course, we want to promote people-to-people exchanges so that China and the United States can really join together, not just to solve the problems of China or the United States, but some of the big problems facing the entire world. From climate change to famine to even terrorism.

STOUT: U.S. President, Barak Obama - he said that he could think of no one who was more qualified for this role than Gary Locke. And I was curious, did you actively seek out this role to become U.S. Ambassador to China?

LOCKE: Absolutely not at all. We were really enjoying our life in Washington D.C. and I was really getting a lot done as Commerce Secretary. But the president pulled me aside and said, "You've been a great manager, I can get another manager. But this relationship with China is one of the most important that we have. It's a really big deal to America. I really need you there".

STOUT: And when you got that phone call, or that letter, whatever it was -

LOCKE: Actually, he pulled me aside -


LOCKE: -- and put his hand on my shoulder. Kind of hard to say "no" to the President under those types of circumstances.

STOUT: Now, you are the first Chinese-American to be U.S. Ambassador here in China. And all of China has taken notice. And you've become a viral sensation. I'm going to show a photograph. It was taken -- right here. If you could describe it for me?

LOCKE: We were just getting ready to board the flight from Seattle to Beijing and I was with my six-year-old daughter. And so, I was just getting a cup of coffee and some drinks for the rest of the family. Did not know that someone was taking a picture of us, and it went viral. And, as a result of that picture, the Chinese press learned when we were arriving in Beijing - because we had not told anyone what flight we were on, when we were arriving, which terminal, what day.

STOUT: As China's 'netizens' pointed out, you were carrying your own luggage, your own backpack, no entourage, standing in line at a Starbuck's - this photograph was reposted over 40,000 times in social media channels in China. Did that reaction surprise you?

LOCKE: I was completely stunned and floored. I mean, who cares what you're doing back in the States? I mean, this is how most American public officials are in everyday - I consider myself an everyday person. Cabinet members fly coach throughout the United States and we're always getting our own coffee and getting snacks at the airport.

STOUT: This photograph - it also triggered a firestorm of debate inside China about China's own officials, with Chinese netizens saying that Chinese officials should be more like Gary Locke and lose the entourage, lose the chauffeur-driven cars, and stand in line in a Starbuck's. What do you make of that?

LOCKE: Well, you know, I don't know how government officials here conduct themselves. I can only just be who I am. And, you know, Americans are such easy-going people. I mean, we don't really have entourages or things like that, so we're just involved with the family and just doing what we're most comfortable with and conducting ourselves the way that most Americans do.

STOUT: Here's another photograph that went viral in China. You probably recognize this one?

LOCKE: Oh, that's again - you know, we're carrying our stuff and walking around and everywhere we go in China, people are taking pictures of us.

STOUT: Did you ever expect that your family would attract so much attention in China?

LOCKE: Well, we do - no, I never did. You know, we think, you know, we're Asian - we blend in. How would anybody recognize us, you know, big basketball players and football players and, you know, folks - Caucasians would attract attention. But, you know, here we are, black hair, brown eyes and blending in with 1.3 billion people - why would anybody notice us?

STOUT: Now, China has very vibrant, dynamic, active online community. So, we can see they're talking -

LOCKE: So we have discovered, yes.

STOUT: -- and swapping and sharing photos about you and your family. There's a very popular Twitter feed that is operated by the U.S. Embassy here in Beijing. It's called "Beijing Air".


STOUT: And it offers regular updates about air quality in the city. And I was just curious, since Twitter is blocked in China, who is the intended audience of this twitter feed?

LOCKE: Well, actually, we're trying to disseminate this to as many people as we can. And, obviously, the embassy personnel and their families use it. A lot of the international schools rely on this information, because what we're trying to measure is the air quality - and especially the very fine particulates that, if in the air, can cause respiratory problems and other health problems.

STOUT: Have Chinese authorities approached you about this Twitter feed? Do they see it as a critique of the quality of life in Beijing?

LOCKE: Well, actually, I think that our monitoring and making this information available is encouraging them and spurring them to also disseminate this information. They have disputes with the accuracy of our machine and the type of measurements that we're taking, but - as many other commentators have noted - it certainly is of greater and greater concern among the Chinese People. The air quality - the environment - and, in fact, their quality of life and the safety of food and water and air that they use every single day.


STOUT (voiceover): Coming up, Gary Locke takes us inside the American Embassy in Beijing, where we find out his take on some prickly issues.

LOCKE: We very much believe that China should be more open, should be more tolerant.




STOUT: Now, this is the U.S. Embassy in China, and this is a massive complex. Just how big is it?

LOCKE: It's the second largest of all the U.S. Embassies in the world. Second only to the one in Baghdad. And, of course, right there is the waiting area for the processing for folks who want visas. And we'll have lines outside during the afternoon, the midday. And we've got to figure out a way to make it more customer-friendly as if we were Nordstrom or another business.

STOUT: This is a showroom of the United States -

LOCKE: That's right, yes. I mean, so people's first impressions about America are about - are formed from their experience trying to get a visa. And, if they have an unpleasant experience, they'll spread that message to other people. We're discouraging people from coming to America, spending money. Again, in America, Chinese visitors spend on average $6,500 every stay.

STOUT: Wow. Wow.

LOCKE: That's money for restaurants, that's money for stores, that's money for hotels - a lot of jobs involved that are being supported by Chinese tourists.

STOUT: And many of those applicants in there may be very willing to spend once they get into the United States.

Now, this is an incredible sight. What's going on here?

LOCKE: Well, these are folks waiting in line to get their interview for a visa. We handle about 1,700 interviews per day.

STOUT: A day?

LOCKE: A day. And several thousand throughout all of China every single day. But, just this last year, we did adjudications or processing of about over a million - we reached the million mark for the first time. But it's probably going to triple within the next three to five years. And there's just so way we have enough staff or windows or facilities to handle what will be millions and millions of people.

STOUT: And I know this is a priority issue for you. Do you have a goal in mind?

LOCKE: I'm on a mission. To really reduce the wait times and streamline the process.


STOUT: Now, in September, you gave a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce here in Beijing. And in it, you criticized China's pace of market reforms in lifting restrictions on foreign investment. And that generated some pretty harsh reaction from people inside China. Some Chinese nationals called you a traitor to your own race. Were you prepared for that kind of thinking?

LOCKE: I knew that people would have certain expectations of me, certainly within China. I was reading some of the internet chatter about their perceptions of me and saying, you know, some of the comments were, "If he's really Chinese, why does he live in America?" or "Maybe he's just a banana - yellow on the outside, but white on the inside". And, again, I'm so proud of my Chinese ancestry, but I was born and raised in America, and I really believe in American values, our American system, our freedom, our liberties.

STOUT: Let's talk about trade. Do you think that the Chinese will commit to their promise of market reform and to open up key markets like energy, banking, transportation - to American investors?

LOCKE: Well, I think that, clearly, they need to. They need to live up to their commitments when they joined the WTO. And it's in their own economic self-interest to do so. Because, clearly, they have such enormous needs. So, this is where we could create these win-win opportunities. Economic success and prosperity in American means jobs for the Chinese people. And, of course, when American companies prosper, they employ more people. So, we've got to really focus on those win-win opportunities.

STOUT: The Yen - will the Chinese government loosen currency controls?

LOCKE: Well, they have, gradually, over time. We, the United States government, believe that they can do more and must do more, and faster. And when you look at the change in the currency coupled with inflation, it's really appreciated by about 10 percent just in the last year alone. But, still, much more needs to be done. By allowing more foreign participation and American participation, China will actually be able to focus on moving away from an export-driven economy to more domestic consumption. So, it's in their economic self-interest to make these reforms.

STOUT: Now, we have to talk about Taiwan next. China's Foreign Minister has said U.S. arms sales to Taiwan is the most important and sensitive core issue in the U.S. - China relationship. Beijing doesn't want the United States to sell arms to Taiwan. What is the U.S. response?

LOCKE: Well, you know, we're very clear about a One-China policy. We very much want - we do not support independence of Taiwan, but we believe that it's incumbent upon both the people on the mainland and the people in Taiwan to resolve this issue and to settle their political future by themselves. At the same time, we will stand by and protect Taiwan until that time occurs.

STOUT: Political dissidents in China - Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate - he is still incarcerated. Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist, remains under house arrest. And there are many, many others. What is the U.S. view on the political crackdown underway in China?

LOCKE: Well, we very much believe that China should be more open, should be more tolerant of diversity of thought, of cultures, religions, and ideas. And so, we're very, very troubled by these crackdowns and we've talked about these issues. The President, Vice President, and I have raised these issues with the Chinese government officials. And we are meeting with a lot of the non-profit organizations, nongovernmental organizations, that advocate on behalf of the dissidents and religious groups.

We believe that diversity of thought and culture and religion and ideas has been the strength of America. It's also recognition of universal human rights is something that China has agreed to and is part of their Constitution. We think it's important that China follow their own commitments and their own principals.

STOUT: The U.S. - China trade relationship is so important and so critical and so many Americans are counting on you to generate more business opportunity and, in turn, more jobs back home. But, in doing so, can you run the risk of turning a blind eye to China's human rights record?

LOCKE: Well, we cannot turn our back to the things that we most value. And that are part of the foundation of America, which is human rights. And our embrace of diversity of thought, religion, cultures, and ideas -- that's what makes America strong.


STOUT (voiceover): Coming up, we travel with Ambassador Locke to his ancestral home in Taishan, in China's South.





STOUT: Now, you are a local hero in Taishan, in Guangdong Province, especially in your home village - your ancestral village of Jilong. And you first visited Jilong in the 1990s, when you were Governor of the State of Washington. Take us back to that moment, what was it like?

LOCKE: Well, let's see, that was my first trade mission as governor. It was the first time my mom and dad had been back to the mainland and to their family village in more than 50 years since their wedding. My dad was in the United States Army during World War II and after the war he came to Hong Kong and met my mom and they got married and then he brought her back to Seattle. So they had not been back to the family village.

We got to the city, and we were mobbed by more than a hundred Chinese press people. And we were in a motorcade that took us to the one hotel in the city, met by the Party Secretary, the Mayor. And we took a big community village photograph. And then we went to see the house where my dad was born, where my grandfather was born.

It was literally like stepping back into the 1800s. And, on one of the walls in the family home that was maintained by and occupied by my dad's number six uncle - was a wall of about nine feet long, three meters long - had the pictures of the entire history of the Locke family going back to the 1800s. Aunts and uncles in their high school graduation pictures, their army uniforms, their wedding pictures. Even pictures of my wedding and my inauguration. And I really realized that my success was really built on the sacrifices of everyone, really, in the village.

STOUT: Your father passed away earlier this year. Here in China, do you think of him often? And do you imagine what his reaction would be, knowing that you are America's top diplomat in China?

LOCKE: I think he would be so immensely proud. And, of course, he'd be giving me all kinds of advice on what to say and do with the Chinese government officials.

STOUT: Your father - he was born in China, but he was a U.S. Veteran?


STOUT: He fought in World War II.

LOCKE: And part of the Normandy invasion.

STOUT: And after the war, he opened up a grocery store. And I was wondering, as a young boy, were you involved in the family business?

LOCKE: Well, we were all expected - two other sisters and myself - we were about the right age to help out. So we'd get off school, take a bus - sometimes take us an hour by bus to get to the grocery store - and then we'd do our homework in the back and then have dinner, but still helping out as much as we could.

STOUT: And at what point during your schooling did you decide that you wanted to become a politician?

LOCKE: I never thought I'd be a politician. It wasn't until well after graduating from law school that I entered into politics. You know, I never thought that I'd be involved in politics. And then I started just helping out and volunteering on people's campaigns. It was really great - you know, stuff envelopes, knock on doors - it was a great way to see the different architecture of different homes and different parts of Seattle and to see how people did their gardening.

And then I got more and more involved, and people said, "Gary, you should run". And I said, "Well". And so, that's how it first started.

STOUT: I wanted to ask you about your grandfather. He has a fascinating story. Again, took the steamboat from China to the United States, worked as a domestic servant.

LOCKE: That's right.

STOUT: Did you know him? What was he like as a person?

LOCKE: I did know him. He passed away when I was about 10-years-old. But grandpa, after coming back to the United States - after having a family - worked as the head chef at one of the local hospitals in Seattle. And when he eventually brought my dad and aunts and uncles over during the depression, that was one way in which he could feed the family.

And when the family came over, the family was detained at the Immigration - Naturalization Service. It was the doctor - the head of the hospital - Doc Mason - who came down and vouched for my grandfather and the rest of the family and enabled them to be freed.

STOUT: Did your father and grandfather feel that you were destined to do something great?



LOCKE: My dad, of course, like a lot of Asian parents, wanted me to be an engineer or doctor and never could understand why I would want to be a lawyer. And then, when I first said I wanted to run for office, he thought that was absolutely insane. Never really did understand what I did as a member of the State Legislature. But, once I became governor, they were very, very supportive and very, very proud.

STOUT: Now, I hear that you are very much a no-frills kind of guy. And, in your down time, you like to do DIY home improvement? Is that true?

LOCKE: Yes, that's right. I brought a whole bunch of my tools with me - all my cordless tools and drills and drivers and things like that.

STOUT: And you're into plumbing?

LOCKE: I love plumbing. I love working with copper tubing and also sewer lines. And I love electrical work. I've gutted homes. I've completely rewired, replumbed homes. Changed the roofline. Put in gas appliances and put in the gas lines myself. And all the exhaust fans, and things like that.

STOUT: What is your dream job, after Beijing?

LOCKE: Oh, I really don't know. I'd like to really perfect my golf game, if that's ever possible. But I love, again, working with my hands.

STOUT: Do you have an eye on the White House?

LOCKE: Absolutely not.

STOUT: Absolutely not. Even though you were considered a contender for vice presidential post?

LOCKE: That was very flattering, but absolutely no interest in the White House.

STOUT: Well, Mr. Ambassador, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

LOCKE: Thank you very much.