Forrest Lin talks to Gary Locke about his ambassadorship to China.

Gary Locke has served in a variety of roles in the public service, as Governor of Washington State, US Secretary of Commerce, and most recently, United States Ambassador to China. Since former Ambassador Locke has been busy with various endeavors, I conduct a phone interview with him to discuss highlights of his career in public service, especially his experiences representing the US in China. From the other end of the phone comes Locke’s firm and welcoming voice.

As an Asian American in American politics, Locke is proud of his origins and aware of the special role he is playing. His family’s humble beginning in the country dates back to over 100 years ago, when his grandfather immigrated to Washington State to work as a houseboy. Locke notes that the Governor’s mansion is only one mile away from where his grandfather worked, and jokes – as he has done before in other interviews – that it took his family 100 years to move one mile. Locke voices his belief that the journey his family took reflects a quintessential experience shared by Americans of all backgrounds.

I note that Locke attended Yale College (JE ’72) at the height of the Vietnam War, one of the most volatile time periods in recent American history, and ask if his experiences at Yale influenced him to serve in public office. Locke acknowledges that it was at Yale, amid the tension and tumult of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the Vietnam War, that he first felt a calling to help push for social change and progress.

Without a doubt, one of the highlights of Locke’s career is his ambassadorship to China. Locke proudly remarks that it was an incredible experience to represent America in this bilateral relationship and an honor to be the first US Ambassador to China of Chinese descent. I can feel his excitement and sense of accomplishment on the other end of the line.

Locke enthusiastically recounts the increase in Chinese tourism to the US and the further enhancement of bilateral economic relationships during his tenure. Locke famously made it easier for Chinese citizens to obtain US visas, decreasing the waiting time despite a 70% increase in demand. He believes that the boost in tourism has truly fostered more people-to-people exchange and offered greater opportunities for the American economy.

In addition to improving tourism, Locke is particularly proud of increasing awareness about human rights issues during his ambassadorship, namely the management of the Chen Guangcheng case. Chen is a self-taught lawyer and human rights activist who served a sentence on charges of disturbing the peace for filing forced abortion cases against Chinese local government officials. Even after his release from prison, Chen was kept under house arrest until he managed to escape to the American embassy in Beijing. Locke led a team that negotiated for his fair treatment in China, and he is especially appreciative of the efforts of other U.S. officials at the embassy and the State Department. Locke also recounts his meetings with various human rights and activist groups all across China, including Uighurs in Xinjiang and Buddhists in Tibet.

Locke then shifts gears to another one of his accomplishments as ambassador. He is delighted to have raised awareness about air pollution in China, increasing the number of Particulate Matter (PM) indicators at US consulates all across China. These indicators, Locke says, really raised the consciousness of the issue of air pollution among the Chinese people. Consequently, public opinion pressured the Chinese government to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and to start taking measures, such as publishing air quality data, to further raise awareness and improve air quality. Locke recalls visiting many parts of China and being thanked by random strangers for letting them know about what PM 2.5 is. (PM 2.5 is a measurement of the density of harmful pollutant particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter). He jokes that today, there are more Chinese who know about PM 2.5 than Americans.

Locke’s sincerity is almost tangible when he voices his belief that for Americans to better understand China, they need to live in China, even if just for a few months. This is why Locke ardently advocates on behalf of programs such as the 100,000 Strong Educational Initiative launched by President Obama to have 100,000 Americans studying in China. He points out that most of the challenges that the US and China will face in the future cannot be solved by the Americans or the Chinese alone, so active cooperation between the two countries – by governments, by scientists, and by businesspeople – will be essential. Through the 100,000 Strong Educational Initiative, Locke aims to continue to encourage more Americans to study in China.

Finally, I ask Locke whether he has any plans to return to public office. Locke graciously responds that while he feels incredibly fortunate to have served in such a variety of roles and has thoroughly enjoyed his time in public service, he harbors no plans ever to work in elected office again. He hopes to be involved in helping campaigns, especially the 2016 Presidential campaign, but he has no desire to regain a political position. As for US-China relations, Locke is sure to become an active and lifelong supporter in promoting bilateral relations between the two nation’s governments, businesses, and especially their people.

Forrest Lin is a junior at Yale University and deputy managing editor of the magazine. Contact him at forrest.lin@yale.edu.

This article appears in the November 2014 issue of China Hands.