US Ambassador to China Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American to head the mission, will step down at the end of this year in order to rejoin his wife and children in Seattle, the embassy said Wednesday.
Amb. Locke cited his children's education, not Beijing's notorious pollution, as the reason for his relatively swift exit.
Mr. Locke, a third-generation Chinese-American, took up his post in 2011, replacing Jon Hunstman, the former Utah senator, who launched a failed bid to become the Republican candidate for president.
Locke, a former commerce secretary and governor of Washington state, and his wife, Mona Lee Locke, a former television reporter and Miss Asian America with roots in Taiwan, both gained a large popular following among local Chinese.
Locke was known as much for his style as for the substance of his diplomacy, though his ambassadorship was tested by tensions in US-China relations.
Locke’s profile here soared after he boarded a plane for Beijing, where an airport traveler snapped a picture of him carrying his own backpack and attempting to use coupons at Starbucks. The photos went viral online in a country where citizens are accustomed to imperious officials who rely on underlings for such tasks. (In March, a state media report claiming that President Xi Jinping took a taxi ride in Beijing brought a large online stir and was later retracted.)
During Locke's tenure, the embassy dealt with a number of high-profile and turbulent political events here. In February 2012, Wang Lijun, police chief to political heavyweight Bo Xilai, sought temporary sanctuary in the US Consulate in Chengdu, where he disclosed information that helped topple Mr. Bo, who was later arrested and convicted of abusing his power. Mr. Wang was clapped in jail for his role in the affair.
Three months later, Locke was again on the hot seat when a blind dissident lawyer, Chen Guangcheng, made a daring escape from house arrest hundreds of miles from Beijing and showed up at the US embassy seeking asylum at the same time then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was in town. After several tense days of negotiations and Chen’s own wavering, he was flown to the US.
There has been speculation that Locke’s involvement in Chen’s escape, along with his visits to restless and highly restricted Tibetan areas last year, angered Chinese officials and made Locke’s job difficult. However, in a telephone interview Wednesday with the Los Angeles Times, the ambassador said his decision was based on the age of his children, who are entering high school.
He also played down speculation that he was fleeing Beijing’s chronic air pollution, which has caused some expats to leave.
Ambassadors often serve four-year terms. Huntsman, a Republican that President Barack Obama appointed to the post, stepped down after two years. Locke's term will be two-and-a-half years.
In a statement, Locke said he was proud of advancing “American values” on human rights in China, and of slashing long waiting times for visas for Chinese tourists and business people, from a high of 70-100 days to 3-5 days. “Helping manage one of the most vitally important bilateral relationships for the United States, with so many critical American interests at stake, has been an immense and rewarding challenge,” he said.