'Like Something out of A Spy Thriller'
Liu, Melinda, Newsweek
Byline: Melinda Liu
Meet our man in Beijing--the calm in the China storm.
The American ambassador Gary Locke was at an afternoon meeting in Beijing, away from his office at the American Embassy, when he received a cryptic email on his BlackBerry: "Return to the embassy's secure communications area immediately." The ambassador rushed back. It was Feb. 6, and Locke was stunned to learn that a senior Chinese policeman had arrived at the U.S. Consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu, telling officials there that he wanted to go to the U.S. because he feared for his life.
Wang Lijun, known as the Eliot Ness of China for his ruthless campaign against organized crime, told a riveting story of how his one-time mentor, a local party secretary by the name of Bo Xilai, was out to kill him because he knew too much about the alleged poisoning and murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, who had known Bo and his wife. It was "fascinating, eye-popping revelations," Locke told Newsweek in an exclusive interview. "My first reaction was 'oh, my God, I mean OH, MY GOD!'"
The next 120 days in the life of the new ambassador--which included dealing with diplomatic fallout after the daredevil escape of blind activist Chen Guangcheng--would be nothing short of historic.
Given Bo's stature within the Communist Party, Wang's presence at the consulate presented a delicate situation. Upping the stakes, Bo--realizing that Wang had gone to the Americans--dispatched armed security forces to surround the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu. But Wang was not about to surrender to Bo and instead summoned people he trusted to escort him out of the embassy and onward to Beijing--away from the clutches of the local party chief and his cronies. (Later, Wang was charged with treason, Bo was purged from the top echelons of the Communist Party, and Bo's wife was charged in the murder of Heywood.) "It felt," Locke said, "like something out of a spy thriller."
The 62-year-old Chinese-American would soon find himself at the center of further extraordinary events that would demand the highest degree of diplomatic dexterity by the ambassador, who, when Wang showed up, was just six months into the job.
Locke, whose father emigrated to America from China and fought at -Omaha Beach during the Allied invasion of Normandy, grew up in public housing for families of veterans. After graduation, he went to Yale and then Boston University, becoming a prosecutor before entering politics. Locke served two terms as governor of Washington--the first Chinese-American in the nation to win a gubernatorial election--and then went on to be secretary of commerce. One of his biggest challenges came in 1999, when, during a WTO meeting in Seattle, police appeared to lose control of protesters. "Locke took charge, called out the National Guard, and led the response that quelled the riots," his then-chief of staff Joe Dear recalled. "He was calm, cool, and extremely focused on getting it right--exactly what you want from a leader in a tough situation."
In 2003, after Locke gave the Democratic rejoinder to President George W. Bush's State of the Union address, he got threatening emails and the FBI uncovered a plot to assassinate him. (A member of a white supremacist group had gotten so far as the reception at his government office.) "It was very unnerving," Locke said, recalling his worry for his children's safety. "The guy evidently thought that it wasn't appropriate for someone of a minority background to be the governor of Washington State." Though he says it wasn't concern over safety that prompted it, Locke decided to take a break from politics shortly afterward, going to work for a Seattle law firm with a focus on China.
Locke campaigned for Hillary Clinton when she ran for the Senate, introducing her to the large Chinese-American population in New York; he also served as her state co-chair in Washington during the 2008 elections, and his admiration and fondness for his boss appear genuine, if slightly breathless. …