US commerce secretary Gary Locke won unanimous Senate confirmation yesterday as ambassador to Beijing, becoming the first Chinese-American to hold the prestigious and difficult diplomatic post.
Locke, whose grandfather came from China to the United States on a steamboat, promised during his smooth confirmation hearings to be a forceful advocate for human rights and for US businesses.
The new envoy, 61, succeeds Republican former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who left Beijing some three months ago and has mounted a run against former boss President Barack Obama in the November 2012 elections.
Locke takes over at a time of tensions in US-China relations, which have been fraught over a range of disputes including Beijing’s export-driven economic policies, growing military spending and human rights record.
And US lawmakers, locked in a angry debate over cash-strapped Washington’s debt, have increasingly painted China’s status as the country’s largest foreign creditor as a source of concern.
Senators approved Locke by voice vote.
He grew up in Seattle’s public housing projects and worked his way through Yale University, eventually becoming a prosecutor and the governor of Washington state. He had been commerce secretary since 2009.
He said during his Senate confirmation hearings that he would use his personal story to reach out to China’s people, but not shy away from sensitive issues like his “vigorous disagreement” with Beijing’s leaders on human rights.
Locke, pointing to his work in Obama’s cabinet, said he would also fight for US businesses by pressing for protection of intellectual property and for the right of foreign firms to compete for government contracts.
Senators also voiced concerns about China’s military strength against Taiwan and the value of its currency, which critics accuse Beijing of keeping artificially low to boost exports at the expense of US firms.
At the time of his nomination in March, China had welcomed the prospects of his arrival in Beijing.
After his arrival in the United States, Locke’s grandfather worked for a family as their house-boy in return for English lessons.