Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Ambassador To China On Trying To Bridge Differences


Before he became America's ambassador to China, Gary Locke was governor of Washington state and then U.S. Commerce secretary. As a diplomat, he faces many of the same challenges now as he did then. Tensions over China's currency and trade policies are routinely part of his job. In fact, during the government shutdown - when there was much talk about a possible U.S. default - some of China's leaders called for de-Americanizing the world economy, making currencies less dependent on the U.S. dollar.

We reached Ambassador Locke at the embassy in Beijing. I asked him how seriously he took that call, given that China is the biggest foreign holder of U.S. debt.

AMBASSADOR GARY LOCKE: Many leaders around the world were concerned about the possible default. But that did not happen, and the United States has never defaulted. And in fact, many countries still want to purchase U.S. treasuries. And China, while it is the largest foreign holders of treasuries, the amount that they actually hold is, I think, less than 7 percent. So we really need to put that into context.

MONTAGNE: Certainly, China and the U.S. are competitors. I mean, the world's leading economies, they would have dueling trade interests. There is one deal in the negotiating stage; the U.S. and several Pacific nations are in final stages of negotiating a trade deal. Now, China is not included in that. Do both of these nations have deals that exclude the other?

LOCKE: Well, actually, the United States is working very hard on a trans-Pacific partnership trade agreement with many countries of the Asia-Pacific region, including South America - really, the Pacific Rim. Any country is actually free to join this potential trade deal, if they can live up to the very high standards that are being negotiated and talked about - from labor rights, environmental protection, health and human safety standards, and protections for intellectual property. No one is excluded.

Countries are free to join, if they're willing to abide by and subscribe to these very high standards. China is actually interested and talked about it, but has felt - and has indicated recently - that they're not sure that they're ready to meet those standards.

MONTAGNE: We should remind our listeners that you are the first American of Chinese descent to hold the post of ambassador. And you made news a couple of years ago, when a photo of you surfaced as you were en route to China. You were photographed carrying your own backpack through the Seattle airport, paying for your own coffee at Starbucks. This was considered immensely newsworthy in China; it circulated around the Web. What did that say about you, or about China, or about their view of you? And I'm kind of also wondering if two years into this, you are seen the same way.

LOCKE: Well, that picture did create quite a stir because I didn't even know that picture was being taken. And I was at a Starbucks counter with my daughter, getting drinks for the family. And I had a backpack, and it had my 8-year-old daughter's favorite toys and special bunny. It just really shows how carefree and casual and relaxed Americans are.

MONTAGNE: By comparison, I presume, to higher-ups in China.

LOCKE: Well, I think the Chinese public aren't used to seeing their political leaders out and about, as we see our political leaders in the United States and other Western countries. So it was a bit of an eye-opener for them. And we're really trying to increase exposure to the West, to America. I'm really proud to say that since I've arrived as ambassador, we've made it much easier for the Chinese people to get a visa.

Before I arrived, the Chinese people sometimes had to wait 70 to 100 days just for a visa interview. If it takes a family - a Chinese family - 70 to 100 days to get a visa interview to go to Disneyland or Disney World, or go down the Grand Canyon, they're going to say forget it. We reduced that processing time down to less than five days.

We've had a 47 percent increase in tourists in 2012 over 2011. They're spending some $7,000 per visit. And I think part of the increase in tourism - which is money into those department stores, money for those hotel workers - it's because of the fact that it's so much easier, faster to get a visa.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Locke, thank you very much for joining us.

LOCKE: My pleasure. Thank you very much, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Gary Locke is U.S. ambassador to China, speaking to us from the embassy in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.