As a former US commerce secretary and governor of Washington state, Gary Locke wasn’t considered much of a heavyweight on human rights when he became the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing last year. Trade and maintaining smooth relations between Washington and its biggest foreign creditor were seen as dominating his agenda.
Yet, nine months on, Locke’s key role in the recent drama over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng has put him on the front lines of US concerns about China’s embattled dissident community. Chen’s sudden escape from house arrest and a US decision to give him sanctuary in the US embassy gave Locke his first crisis as ambassador, made him a target of criticism from Beijing and earned him respect from the human rights lobby.
“He is setting a new precedent for future US ambassadors” on human rights, said Bob Fu of the Texas-based rights group ChinaAid, who has been in close contact with Chen and the Obama administration over the case.
After travelling to Beijing with the help of rights advocates, Chen contacted the embassy, and Locke sent a car to pick him up. During Chen’s anxious six days inside, Locke said he spent up to five hours a day with him, trying to reassure him. After Chen initially decided to remain in China and be reunited with his family at a Beijing hospital, Locke accompanied him and was photographed holding his hand as they entered the hospital.
“We spent a lot of time determining what it is that he wanted,” Locke told reporters last week.
Though the decision to remain in China was Chen’s – and he then reversed it himself – Locke has come under intense pressure over the 40-year-old’s fate, with some calling him foolish or too trusting for accepting Chinese assurances that Chen would be safe remaining in China.
Rights groups accused Locke and the Obama administration of betraying Chen. US Congressman Frank Wolf, a fierce Beijing critic, told a congressional hearing that the US government’s handling of the case was “naive”, while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called letting Chen leave a “dark day for freedom”. Locke strongly defended the embassy’s actions and said they had been looking at what would be needed to accommodate Chen for a long-term stay.
China’s state-controlled media launched a co-ordinated broadside on Friday. The Beijing Daily attacked Locke by name for “boldly and recklessly taking Chen into the embassy in a non-normal way.”
“What we have seen in him is not a prudent ambassador to China but a typical American politician who actively stirs up swirls of conflicts,” the newspaper said.
Despite initial doubts in the human rights community, Fu said Locke has won credibility by meeting with dissidents and leaders of Christian congregations that worship outside the direct control of the ruling Communist Party.
- China’s blind activist Chen Guangcheng may have to accept exile (chinadailymail.com)
- China paper calls Chen a U.S. pawn; envoy is a “troublemaker” (chinadailymail.com)
- China crisis puts Locke in spotlight (politico.com)
South China Morning Post