BEIJING — U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, who won plaudits for his low-key style and for cutting visa waiting times for Chinese citizens entering the United States, announced Wednesday that he would step down early next year to rejoin his family in Seattle.
The greatest tests Locke faced as ambassador came in 2012. In February, a high-profile police chief sought refuge in a U.S. consulate in the city of Chongqing. Two months later, a blind human rights activist escaped from house arrest and sought sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Locke’s greatest achievement may have been cutting waiting times for U.S. visas to three to five days, down from 70 to 100 days when he took over. Locke said the improvement had “significantly increased Chinese business and travel tourism to the U.S.”
Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said Locke should be applauded for the visa progress. At the same time, he said, it was “not evident” that the ambassador had a grand strategic vision for the U.S.-China relationship.
Locke suffered somewhat for his Chinese heritage, something that did not necessarily boost his authority with officials here, Paal said. “That plays well in the United States but doesn’t translate in the host environment. They don’t treat you as an equal in China.”
The first high-profile diplomatic standoff during Locke’s tenure involved police chief Wang Lijun, who gave the consulate information about the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, unleashing one of China’s biggest political scandals in decades. The case eventually led to the life imprisonment of Chongqing’s leader, Bo Xilai, on corruption charges.
In April, just days before then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in China for an important bilateral dialogue, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng was given shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing for six days.
Locke was on vacation at the time, but he hurried back to China to manage the crisis. Again, he won praise for a photograph — this time, showing him holding Chen’s hand as they entered a hospital. The activist was later allowed to leave China with his family and settle in the United States.
Professor Sun Zhe, of the department of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said Locke had helped stabilize U.S.-China relations and handled the 2012 situations well by communicating with the governments in Washington and Beijing around the clock.
“It is not an easy job to be the American ambassador to China,” Sun said. “Gary Locke is not a shining star, but a simple and unadorned ambassador.”
Locke, a former commerce secretary and governor of Washington state, also focused on promoting U.S. exports to China and on Chinese investment in the United States, something he said had helped create American jobs. But experts said he had never seemed to have much sway with the Obama administration on those issues.
In a statement announcing his departure, he said he had also “advanced American values by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers, and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang.”
Embassy officials said Locke’s decision to leave his post was motivated by a desire reunite with his family and ensure that his children could complete their high school education in one place, rather than by any concerns about pollution or schooling in China.
“Mrs. Locke and the Locke children moved back to the Seattle area last summer so that the two eldest children could complete their high school education there,” spokesman Nolan Barkhouse said.