Since it blew up on national headlines recently, China News Service’s embittered farewell to former U.S.-China Ambassador Gary Locke sparked worldwide controversy.
But despite the government press agency’s racially derogative claim that Locke was a traitor to the Chinese government — a “banana man,” with “yellow skin” and a “white heart” — his work and life have transcended the very binaries of “white” and “yellow” that trap the public into believing one cohesive, authentic identity is impossible. The Seattle native and world diplomat has gained deep respect among Americans and leaders around the globe who share values of human dignity, freedom and opportunity. All the while, he has championed these values throughout his 30 year career, setting precedents in the state, nation and world against incredible odds.
As one of five children in his family, Locke spent the first years of his life growing up in the Yesler Terrace housing project in the 1950s, learning English with his mother upon entering kindergarten. He went on to graduate from Franklin High School with honors and to attend Yale on a combination of scholarship money, financial aid and part-time jobs.
By 1987, with experience working at the King County prosecutor’s office and a Boston University law degree under his belt, Locke was elected Washington state’s 37th District Representative. When Gary Locke started out in politics he was only one of three legislators of color out of 98 state representatives in the House, and one of two Asian Americans in the entire Legislature. In the House, he served as the chair of the appropriations committee and one of the state’s chief budget writers. Under his leadership, state spending rose nearly 60 percent to reduce school class sizes, extend health coverage to expectant mothers and increase college enrollment.
In 1993, Locke ran for King County Executive, earning the Democratic nomination and 60 percent of the general election vote against Republican incumbent Tim Hill. Locke became the first ethnic minority to become King County Executive, and built a legacy of leading responsible urban growth.
When Locke was elected Governor, my immigrant relatives were beyond proud. He somehow became the nephew, son or grandson of every first-generation Chinese American in the state — the manifestation of their American dream. In an interview with Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) as governor, Locke discussed the journey he had taken as a third-generation American.
“My grandfather came over to the United States at the turn of the century … and actually worked as a houseboy for a family here in Olympia, the state capitol,” Locke said. “Now, I’m the governor of the state of Washington, serving in the state capitol, Olympia, nearly one mile from the house where Grandfather worked as a houseboy. So it took our family 100 years to travel one mile.”
Though criticized by left-leaning pundits for being too conservative a Democrat, Locke fought for affirmative action (policy that made Yale possible for him), stood behind anti-discrimination legislation for LGBTQ-identified employees, refocused welfare on getting jobs, vetoed hundreds of bills hurting poor families and created a State Food Assistance program for lawfully residing immigrants dropped from the federal food stamps in 1997.
He delivered the Democrat’s rebuttal to George W. Bush’s 2003 state of the union address, putting him at a level of visibility that generated racist emails and violent threats towards him and his family. Locke decided not to run for reelection in 2005, effectively retiring his family as an open target for bigotry. He instead worked behind the scenes brokering commerce between China and the U.S. for international law firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, LLP.
By 2008, Locke was primed to join the Obama administration as U.S. Secretary of Commerce, where he was able to increase American exports to China by 32 percent between 2009 and 2010. This positioned him for his appointment as the first Chinese-American U.S. Ambassador to China, which he served as from 2011 until he stepped down on Feb. 27, setting a high bar for his successor, Dan Kritenbrink.
During his tenure, Locke reduced the wait time for interviews in China to acquire American visas from up to 100 days to five days. He also met with human rights lawyers, leaders in Tibet and Uyghur ethnic minority communities to help broker peace during violent political turmoil. In the spring of 2012, he protected lawyer Chen Guangcheng, a blind disability rights activist, housing him at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing when he fled house arrest.
As diplomatic as he proved and as admirably modest he appeared to the Chinese people, he didn’t shy away from controversy during his U.S. ambassadorship, standing his ground as a champion of civil rights.
Infuriated Chinese bureaucrats can keep shaking their heads, but Locke’s lifetime of “firsts” for the state, nation and world prove that his legacy stretches beyond “yellow” and “white,” and gives America, Washington and Seattle another reason to be proud.