Ambassador for the American Dream By Samuel Tsoi and Photos By Apex Media Group
US Ambassador to China Gary Locke on Balancing Culture, Family and Leadership
It was just a photo of a man wearing a backpack using a coupon at Starbucks. But somehow it went viral in China. Taken in 2011, that candid image was of Gary Locke, then America’s newly minted ambassador to the People’s Republic of China moments before his coach flight to Beijing. It illustrated another fascinating chapter of the grand narrative between the world’s superpower and its chief contender.
Before his first act as ambassador, Locke’s image and ethnic identity already became an American charm offensive, intended or not. Many Chinese netizens admired his down-to-earth attitude, which contrasted with the extravagance of many Chinese officials, while nationalist voices dismissed Locke as a distracting ploy by Washington.
As ambassador, Locke presided over a period filled with ups and downs in Sino-American affairs, from protecting and elevating human rights advocates to asserting America’s role in regional security to growing economic and social ties. After over two years of symbolic and substantive diplomatic moments, Locke’s brand of understated, steady accomplishment is still on display.
The former ambassador and governor sat down with ALIST to discuss career, family and identity before his keynote speech at the 2014 National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) Convention in Anaheim, Calif.
In contrast with the uniform, jet-black hair of his PRC counterparts, 64-year-old Locke arrived at the convention sporting a salt-and-pepper look, warmly greeting and listening genuinely to each attendee. His attitude and outlook were distinctly American: casual, confident and idealistic. At the same time, his approach, record on policy and management style were also Chinese: dutiful, relational and respectful of context and history.
It is this embodiment of integrated cultural influences Locke brought to American politics as well as his career and family life. “I’m proud of my Chinese heritage,” he said. “I’m proud of the great contributions that China has made to world civilization over thousands of years. But I’m thoroughly American. I’m proud of the great values of freedom and democracy that America stands for.”
As a pioneering public figure, the former two-term governor of Washington went on to serve as President Obama’s Secretary of Commerce along with two other Asian Americans in one of the most diverse executive cabinets. Then, in 2012 leaving his cabinet position the president pulled Locke aside after Jon Huntsman resigned, and said, “I know you’re an effective manager, and we need you in this critical bilateral relationship.”
Locke stepped up to that role, becoming the first Chinese American to serve as America’s top envoy to Beijing, bringing his solid record of advancing trans-Pacific trade.
The move halfway around the world also ushered another remarkable era for his family. It brought him full-circle to his ancestral homeland, over a century since his grandfather immigrated to America.
Putting Family First
Wherever the Locke family went in China, they became walking billboards for the American Dream, garnering pride among Chinese people who saw faces like theirs succeeding overseas and provoking debates about identity, loyalty and universal values.
Amid the spotlight, the family experienced a moving homecoming to Taishan (a county-level city) in Guangdong Province. “More importantly, my children have been back to the family village where their great-grandparents were born,” Lock reminisced. “It was truly like stepping back into the 1800s; houses have windows with no glass, maybe one light bulb in a room, people cook with wood kindling or coal, and no toilets. I want them to appreciate the China where at least half of the population lives.”
Locke looks back at his public service career as the culmination of his family’s story and the ambition of countless other immigrants prior and since. “It took 100 years for my family to travel one mile,” Locke said in 1994 when he was sworn in as the first Asian American governor of Washington. The reference was a nod to his grandfather who worked as a house servant in exchange for English lessons back in 1890s, one mile from the governor’s mansion in Olympia.
It was a quintessential American narrative: A family of modest beginnings from a world away, after years of perseverance under discriminatory and improbable circumstances, produced a statesman that blazed the trail for sons and daughters of other immigrants. As American as Locke’s story was, it was also Chinese. Locke measures his success not solely based on individual achievement, but in the context of family well-being and relational harmony.
He maintained that his decision to resign from being ambassador was largely driven by his daughter’s preparation for college. In fact, putting the interests of their children over career ambitions began when the Lockes welcomed their first child two months after the couple moved into the governor’s mansion in 1997.
The couple attended the Seminar for New Governors (SNG) by the National Governors Association, taught by a bipartisan faculty of former governors. They stressed the importance of prioritizing family. “You need to set limits on how many nights you’re away from the home,” Locke said, recalling the advice fondly.
With close to a hundred invitations for evening events per week, the governor and first lady firmly established a discipline of being home at least three evenings per week. “What will you remember 15 or 20 years later?” Locke added. “Will you remember the gala or the ribbon-cutting ceremony, or will you remember your daughter’s first ballet recital or first soccer game?”
Leadership In Career
Throughout his leadership roles, Locke saw common threads in management across public and private sectors. “I always believed in setting high stretch goals that would force an organization to completely rethink how they do things, but also be prepared for failure,” Locke said. “That will encourage and motivate staff members to pick themselves up and go at it again. In fact, I often look for projects where we set super high goals, where we know they will fail, and then celebrate the progress.”
Locke most recently put this approach to work at the embassy in Beijing, the second largest U.S. diplomatic mission in the world after Baghdad. With no additional appropriations from Congress in sight, his team pulled off a nearly impossible feat: At the time, Chinese nationals were waiting months for a visa interview for travel, study, or business that put America at a competitive disadvantage.
“If you were a Chinese business person considering buying an American product, and the wait is 70 to 100 days, I can get a visa to Germany, Canada or France within a month,” Locke said. “That’s costing American jobs.”
His team revamped its approach, and in less than two months, the wait time was significantly reduced to an average of five days even as demand for visas to the U.S. increased by more than half.
“[Fixing visa inefficiencies] made it possible for more Chinese people to visit, study and invest in America,” Locke said. He also saw the potential for sociological and political impact as important reasons for expediting the system. “It enabled more Chinese to come to America, and hopefully, to get a taste of democracy and so they’ll want faster change in China themselves.”
During his speech at the NAAAP convention, Locke challenged Asian Americans to shatter the civic glass ceiling so public leaders like him would no longer be an anomaly. “Having given our blood, sweat and tears to defend and build up this great country, we have every right and indeed the duty to be at the table to set the policies that affect all of us,” Locke asserted, encouraging individuals to consider all forms of public service from serving on local boards, to voting and running for elected office.
“It’s our job to empower and inspire future generations, not just in careers in business, arts, sports, science and academia, but also in government,” he said. “I really believe that this is the next great frontier of Asian advancement in North America.”