Locke: China Is A Country Of Great Contrasts

Gary Locke is Washington's ambassador to Beijing. He took over the post after Jon Huntsman left to run for president. Locke is the first U.S. ambassador to China to have ancestral roots in that country. Ambassador Locke talks to Steve Inskeep about his impressions of China and its government.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

You can't pay attention to the presidential campaign without hearing references to China. Republican candidates have complained about Chinese trade practices. Criticizing China in campaign season is getting to be a political tradition – followed by presidential candidates from both parties.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

At the same time, President Obama's administration has been quietly reorienting U.S. foreign policy, seeking to focus more on Asia's Pacific Rim nations. The point man for the administration is U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. He's a former governor of Washington State and his ancestors came from a village in southern China. Now Ambassador Locke is based in a rising nation that many Americans see as a threat.

Ambassador Locke stopped by our studios on a brief visit to Washington. What does China want?

GARY LOCKE: It is fundamentally, I think, focused on trying to raise the standard of living and the quality of life for its people. In many ways, its progress has been held back over the last couple of centuries, compared to its civilization, spanning thousands of years, in which it really views itself as a leader of world civilization, having invented and contributed so much to civilization - from the compass, the clock, the printing press, paper, the seismograph.

And they feel, in many ways, that the actions of the West, and even their own rulers, have really set the country backward, and so they're really trying to make up for lost time.

INSKEEP: Wounded pride...

LOCKE: In some ways.

INSKEEP: ...from the colonial period and other periods of history.

LOCKE: In some ways. And so, you see an incredible transformation in China. Before I became an ambassador, going to China several times a year as a private citizen and as a government official, I'm just stunned at the incredible transformation. Villages that were just 25, 50,000 people 20 years ago are now cities of five million people with some of the tallest skyscrapers anywhere in the world.

There's an energy, a dynamism, in China. And yet China is a country, still, of great contrast. While hundreds of millions of people are part of the middle class and yearn for things made in America - American brands, movies, music - there are other hundreds of millions of people throughout China who are living on the equivalent of one U.S. dollar a day.

And who don't really have refrigeration. And you go back to our own family village, which is about a mile from a city of millions of people in southern China, and they don't have toilets. They have an outhouse. They still cook using coal briquettes and kindling that they find from the countryside.

INSKEEP: So you're starting assumption is that China is more concerned with internal development than with dominating East Asia, with dominating the world, with supplanting the United States or any of the things that Americans sometimes worry about.

LOCKE: Well obviously, it is a huge competitor to the United States, and much of their trade and their economy is focused on the Pacific region and indeed all around the world. You see them extracting natural resources in Africa, Latin America, and other parts of Asia. And so I think that there is a concern, a question mark, by people all around the world and governments all around the world, as to what China's intentions are.

INSKEEP: Even after having been there, having met with Chinese officials, having studied this as you have, do you still have questions about what their intentions are?

LOCKE: Well, we know what they're focused on in the immediate term. The way in which they operate does pose concerns, whether it's conflict and disputes over a territory in the south China Seas to their economy policies. As President Obama clearly said just a few months ago, China must play by the international rules, the international trading system from which they've benefited so much.

We have a lot of concerns about their record on human rights, and their openness as a society. We need more exchanges between our military leaders so that we can avoid miscalculations. Again, we welcome a growing prosperous China, but one that assumes greater responsibility in the international order.

INSKEEP: What do you think has prompted Chinese officials, in the last year or so, to in more and more public ways, crack down on people they perceive as dissidents? Just this week, there's been a poet who has been arrested for a poem that talked about encouraging people to put their feet in the square. It was nothing too specific, but it does seem to be a reference to something like Tiananmen Square.

LOCKE: The human rights record within China seems to rise and fall over time, but it's very clear that in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics and since then, there's been a greater intolerance of dissent and the human rights record of China has been going in the wrong direction.

And we deal with the human rights issue, as an embassy, on a daily basis in terms of diplomacy with the Chinese officials, public diplomacy, public statements, supporting human rights activists and dissenters; as well as meeting with individual groups and churches and lawyers, and people who in fact have felt the brunt of the crackdown and the intolerance of dissent. We're very concerned about this, because we, as a country, feel very strongly about human rights which are universal human rights.

But let me just say that there's a growing ability within the people of China to still talk about these things using social media, the Internet. And while the Chinese may try to censor and limit and block a lot of these activities and discussions, the people themselves are generally one step ahead. And they may come up with different code words to talk about - whether it's Tibet, they're talking about basic freedoms, their concerns about the Chinese policy, the political system, the economics, what have you.

But that discussion is still going on.

INSKEEP: When you say, Ambassador, that the Chinese human rights record is getting worse, does that imply that Chinese officials are more and more concerned about the stability of the country or about their perch at the top of it?

LOCKE: I think both. They're very concerned about domestic tranquility and stability, especially as it might influence and impact their ability to maintain control over the country and to - and the strength and the viability of the communist party.

INSKEEP: Is the party getting weaker?

LOCKE: Well, they are certainly much more attentive to the concerns of the people, as expressed through blogging and microblogging and the Internet.

And, you know, you see on a daily basis – learn of demonstrations, some small, but some large, including the – almost the blockading or the sit down of a city in southern China over a confiscation of land without reasonable compensation. And they basically prevented anybody from the outside from coming in and brought the city to a halt and forced the Chinese government communist leaders to send people into air - and to address their grievances.

So I do believe that there is a power of the people, and there is a growing frustration among the people over the operations of government, corruption, lack of transparency, and issues that affect the Chinese people on a daily basis that they feel are being neglected.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the situation is fundamentally stable in China right now?

LOCKE: It's very - it's, I think, very delicate - very, very delicate. And – but there were calls earlier this year for a Jasmine revolution and nothing came of it. I think it would take something very significant, internal to China, to cause any type of major upheaval.

INSKEEP: Gary Locke is the United States Ambassador to China. Thanks for coming by.

LOCKE: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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