BEIJING – As a former U.S. 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 U.S. concerns about China's embattled dissident community. Chen's sudden escape from house arrest and a U.S. decision to give him sanctuary in the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
Chen's fate remains unresolved. Still-evolving arrangements between Washington and Beijing may result in Chen and his family ultimately leaving China for the United States.
On Sunday, Chen, his wife and two children were still inside a Beijing hospital where he is receiving treatment for injuries suffered during his bold escape two weeks ago from his rural farmhouse. U.S. officials spoke by phone to Chen and his wife at the hospital, a U.S. Embassy spokesman said.
Chen had been under illegal house arrest along with his family for 20 months at their rural home, following his release from a four-year prison term imposed after he angered local officials by revealing abuses by family planning officials, including forced abortions.
After traveling 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 in the thick of the negotiations over Chen.
Though the decision to remain in China was Chen's — and he then reversed 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. Rep. Frank Wolf, a fierce Beijing critic, told a congressional hearing that the U.S. 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 fully state-controlled media launched a coordinated 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.
Locke has discomfited Beijing and received praise from many Chinese from the day he took up his post last August. A photo of him wearing a backpack and trying to use a coupon to buy coffee at Seattle airport was widely posted on the Chinese Internet along with comments applauding the 62-year-old Yale-educated lawyer's unassuming style.
The contrast with Chinese bureaucrats, who have aides carry their bags and attend to even minor tasks, was stark. Locke's Chinese heritage — his father was a Chinese-born grocer who moved to Seattle — made the contrast all the more stinging.
Locke has drawn overflowing audiences to his speeches at Chinese universities and been the subject of magazine cover stories. Huge crowds showed up when he visited his ancestral home in the southeastern province of Guangdong.
At one point, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials complained to the U.S. Embassy about Locke's popular image of being thrifty as an attempt to defame the Chinese government.
"Who would have thought that just getting a cup of coffee would create such a stir," Locke, who doesn't speak Mandarin Chinese, said in a December interview.
Before he became ambassador, little in Locke's past would have pointed to a passion for human rights. An exception during his eight years as governor of Washington state was a landmark law mandating anti-bullying policies in state schools.
"We will do everything in our power to keep our kids physically and emotionally safe at school," Locke said when the measure was signed into law in 2002.
Locke likes to tell Chinese audiences that Washington is the U.S. state with the most trade with China. As commerce secretary under Obama, he dealt with China's trade barriers, its surplus with the U.S. and rampant theft of intellectual property.
Human rights has traditionally been a prominent and contentious issue for U.S. ambassadors, but Chen's case has put the issue at the center of U.S.-China tensions perhaps for the first time since China's bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests around Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
Despite initial doubts in the human rights community, Fu, the Texas-based lobbyist, 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. Locke's actions in the Chen case will resonate for years to come and he should see China's criticisms of him as a "merit badge," Fu said. Fittingly, Locke, whose father fought in World War II, was an Eagle Scout.
"I and the embassy have long had interest in Mr. Chen Guangcheng, and of course, the U.S. government has long had an interest," Locke told reporters on Thursday. "We've mentioned him in so many of our human rights statements, and have advocated for his humane treatment ever since for many, many years."