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Passing the baton in China

Publication Date : 14-02-2014


Last Thursday, the United States Senate approved the nomination of six-term Democratic Party senator Max Baucus as its next ambassador to China.

Baucus will be replacing the current diplomat, Gary Locke, who announced he would step down in November last year.

Locke, the 10th US ambassador to China and the first American Chinese to assume the position, had cited his intention to rejoin his family in Seattle as the reason for giving up the post.

From the very beginning of his term, the 63-year-old had become the centre of attention for his prudence and low-key approach.

It all started with a photo of him carrying his own backpack and buying coffee at Starbucks with a discount coupon at the Seattle airport on the very day he and his family left for China.

His humble lifestyle had impressed many, who felt that it was exactly what the Chinese officials lacked.

Locke, who was two-term Washington governor and Secretary of Commerce, was also well known as the US envoy who publicised the readings of air pollutants, sparking heated discussion on air pollution in China.

In 2012, Locke was involved in the negotiations with Chinese officials when blind human rights activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and sought refuge at the US embassy.

Chen eventually moved to the US.

Besides promoting Chinese investment in the United States and US exports to China, Locke has reduced the waiting time for Chinese to attend the US visa interviews from between 70 and 100 days to three to five days.

In an earlier television interview with the Oprah of China, Yang Lan, Locke had admitted that his ethnicity could be a disadvantage when Chinese nationals expected him to represent the Chinese viewpoint, but he was there as a representative of the US government.

His resignation has sparked much speculation. Some believed he was driven out of Beijing by the air pollution, or that he aspired to return to the US to run in the next presidential election.

There was also a rumour that he was quitting to save his marriage, which was said to have been ruined by an affair.

Locke rubbished all the claims as the silliest things he had ever heard.

“The decision was made last spring to move the family back to the US so that the kids could finish their education, and I would follow shortly,” he told Yang in another interview.

Locke and his wife Mona Lee have included a subtle farewell message in a recent Chinese New Year greeting video uploaded on Youku.

“Although Mona and I will soon be departing for our hometown of Seattle, we’ll continue to actively promote people-to-people relations between our two great countries.

“We’ve worked so well together in the past two and a half years; US officials, Chinese officials, members of the business communities in both our countries, to say nothing of the students, educators, journalists, artists and athletes, bringing our two countries closer together in a million different ways.

“We’ve accomplished a lot together, and I am optimistic about what the future holds,” Locke said.

Mona added, “The kids and I have enjoyed the great adventure we’ve had in China, reconnecting with family members in Shanghai and Taishan, and working with Chinese and American friends to increase people-to-people exchange.

“It’s been our family’s greatest honour to represent the millions of Chinese Americans as well as all Americans who appreciate the value of family and community that the Chinese New Year embodies so well.”

Meanwhile, back in the US, Baucus has vowed to build trust with China.

AFP reported that Baucus said he expected to be busy handling the maritime disputes between China and its neighbours in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

But China’s state news agency Xinhua made it clear in a commentary in response to his appointment that Beijing is “annoyed by the US meddling in its territorial disputes with Japan and some Southeast Asian countries.”

“Instead of letting regional disputes derail the overall development of Washington-Beijing ties, the new US ambassador to China could play a positive role in promoting bilateral relations, easing regional tensions, and contributing to peace and stability,” it said.

It advised Baucus to “pick off his coloured glasses on China’s economy and learn more about the complexity of bilateral relations”.

In another commentary published on the same day, Xinhua said Baucus has the “rare opportunity to help write a crucial chapter in international relations and even in the history of mankind” through promoting mutual understanding and enhancing economic and strategic cooperation between the two countries.

Both commentaries saw Baucus as an appropriate candidate for the position due to his vast experience in trade issues, but cautioned that he has a mixed record.

One said that while Baucus was noted as a proponent in China’s admission into the World Trade Organisation, he had also criticised China for an alleged manipulation of exchange rates.

On a lighter note, AFP reported that Baucus, who was the chairman of the US Senate Finance Committee, has expressed his eagerness to participate in the Beijing marathon.

The 72-year-old would be the oldest person to take on the role since both countries re-established diplomatic ties in 1979, sparking concerns among Netizens on whether he could survive the polluted air in Beijing.


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