BEIJING — The numbers are never far from Gary Locke’s mind.
Average wait time for a visa. Trade figures. Tallies of Chinese investment in the United States. These have been Locke’s obsessions during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to China.
It has been a tumultuous time in one of America’s most complex and important relationships, and Locke has lived moments of enormous drama — including high-stakes negotiations over a blind dissident hiding out in the U.S. Embassy and the attempted defection of a Communist Party insider.
But with just weeks left on the job, Locke believes his legacy lies primarily with those numbers.
In a recent interview, he pointed to the waiting period for interviews for Chinese applying for U.S. visas: less than five days on average, down from as high as 100 days a few years ago. He noted that in the past two years, more Chinese investment has poured into the United States than in the previous 11 years combined.
His theory as ambassador, Locke said, is that by focusing on the details — such as the visa process — you can move the needle on much bigger goals, like exposing more Chinese visitors to American-style democracy and values.
“It’s not just the numbers, but what those numbers represent,” he said.
Some U.S. ambassadors are known for their influence, like Zalmay Khalilzad, who was dubbed “the viceroy” when he was posted in Afghanistan. Some stand out for their pro-democracy activism, like Robert S. Ford, who showed support for anti-government demonstrators while serving as ambassador to Syria.
Locke, 63, has won fame as a number cruncher.
Just days after landing in Beijing in August 2011, Locke asked his embassy section heads for their goals, steps to reach them and ways to measure the progress.
“It was a very practical approach to diplomacy,” said one embassy official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank about his superior. “He didn’t want esoteric answers but exact explanations.”
Locke’s approach reflected his experience in politics. As U.S. secretary of commerce from 2009 to 2011, he had reduced lag times in issuing patents. Previously, as governor of Washington state, he cut DMV wait times from 60 minutes to 10.
Not everything lends itself to such measurements, especially in the world of diplomacy. Deciphering China’s opaque leadership structure is often elusive work, and making progress on human rights requires quiet, sustained effort. “But I wanted to make sure we at least outline our goals in those areas,” Locke said.
Some U.S. analysts question whether he played a large enough role in shaping China policy.
“He walks away having accomplished something on visas, but in terms of having a policy impact, nothing,” said Doug Paal, vice president of studies at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “He hasn’t stood out in a positive or negative way.”
Others say, however, that under the Obama administration, the White House and the National Security Council have more aggressively controlled U.S. policy on China, leaving less of a role for the American ambassador in Beijing.
Locke said he was one of a group of players involved in big crises, including the negotiations over the fate of blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng, who fled to the U.S. Embassy from house arrest in spring 2012. The ambassador’s role, Locke said, is to explore and lay out all options for those involved, along with their potential consequences.
Susan Shirk, a former U.S. diplomat who is chair of the 21st Century China Program at University of California at San Diego, said diplomats could spend all their time “doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, and not end up with much.”
“The two things he focused on — investment and visas — they’re not insignificant,” she said
When Locke arrived in August 2011 and promptly declared visas his top priority, many at the embassy expressed skepticism. Making the process easier would only increase demand. And no additional funding or workers were in sight for several months.
But within two months — by reengineering the process, including lengthening the workday by organizing staff members into staggered shifts — embassy employees dramatically decreased wait times for visa interviews.
The improvement was crucial in boosting trade, Locke said. “If you’re a Chinese businessman, you can’t just wait 100 days to get your visa, that’s lost business,” he said.
In the past two years, the number of visa applications has risen by 75 percent. That’s significant for the U.S. economy, Locke said, because the average Chinese citizen spends $6,000 during each visit to the United States.
He has similarly sought to overcome other obstacles to Chinese investment. Locke secured money from business groups for a slick video explaining U.S. investment law. Some Chinese companies have been wary of investing in the United States because of well-publicized cases in which their intended purchases have been blocked or met with protests from American politicians. U.S. officials now show the video every chance they get to Chinese business leaders.
Locke also took on the role of matchmaker, getting U.S. business groups and local American economic development agencies to compile books of shovel-ready projects to lug around to Chinese investors. Some analysts say he played a role in the huge increase in Chinese investment, which totaled $18 billion in the past two years compared with $11 billion from 2000 to 2011.
In China, Locke is best known not for his work on trade or visas but for being the first U.S. ambassador here who is Chinese American.
Before he even landed in China, photographs of him buying coffee at a Starbucks at the Seattle airport went viral. For Chinese, the image of a U.S. dignitary, who looked ethnically like their own officials, carrying his own luggage and fetching his own coffee made their party leaders seem deeply out of touch.
Locke’s personal narrative as the son of an immigrant family who worked his way to a senior U.S. government position has also served as a constant promotion of American possibilities.
Even now, Locke is swarmed at events and sometimes asked to pose for hundreds of pictures at a time.
The constant picture-taking wears on him at times, Locke said, “but it makes the people I meet feel good. It’s a small price to pay for that kind of personal diplomacy.”
With his replacement, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in the confirmation process, Locke has said that he plans to leave by March 1. He said he is resigning because he and his wife want to give their eldest daughter a chance to spend her junior and senior years at a U.S. high school.
Locke said he hasn’t decided what he’ll do next, but he rules out a run for public office.
As part of his farewell tour, Locke recently made a final pilgrimage to his family’s ancestral home among the muddy rice paddies of Taishan in Guangdong province. When he arrived in the village, hundreds of people erupted in cheers, and many vied to get one last photo with him.
“I’m just a villager. I don’t know anything about U.S.-China relations,” one distant relative, Lok Gufei, 57, said. “But he is our most famous brother. And we are proud of who he is and what he represents.”