Homegrown Hero Locke Tries to Build U.S. Trade in China as Tensions Lurk

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was leaving a ceremony in Shanghai this week when May Wang cornered him to get his autograph on a decade-old photo of the two of them with Locke’s wife, Mona.

Wang hoped to use that connection to persuade Locke, whose parents emigrated from China to the U.S., to let her write a biography for Chinese readers, she said moments later.

“The Chinese people are so crazy about him,” Wang said in an interview. “But we don’t have his stories.”

The relevance of Locke’s celebrity in China is being tested this week as he travels on a trade mission with executives from companies such as General Electric Co., Duke Energy Corp. and First Solar Inc. While the visit is aimed at promoting American exports of clean-energy technology, Locke, 60, also has to tackle festering trans-Pacific tensions over China’s currency and trade policies.

It’s a change for Locke, whose encounters with his ancestral homeland were all about boosting U.S. exports when he was the Democratic governor of Washington state from 1997 to 2005, and when he was a private lawyer before joining President Barack Obama’s administration last year.

“He is learning China in a national way now,” Robert Kapp, the former president of the Washington-based U.S.-China Business Council and a consultant in Port Townsend, Washington, said in an interview.

Locke says his experience in China and his heritage help him in his push to promote American businesses and break down barriers to investment.

‘Raise the Issues’

“It gives me the ability to meet with more people at a higher level, so that I can raise the issues of concern,” he said May 14 in a Washington interview before heading to China.

U.S. companies and labor unions such as the United Steelworkers say they’re watching to see if Locke will be tough on issues from opening China’s markets to imposing tariffs on its exports -- despite or because of his popularity in China.

Papermaker NewPage Corp. of Miamisburg, Ohio, is pressing Locke for higher duties on imports from Chinese competitors to compensate for the advantage NewPage says they get from a weak Chinese currency.

“China’s government and exporters are being told we are fed up with their cheating on our fair trade laws,” United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said last month when the department approved duties on imported Chinese steel pipes.

Using tariffs might be more important than the Treasury Department dubbing China a currency manipulator, as sought by lawmakers, because it would mean protection for American producers, said Michelle Applebaum, who runs a steel-research firm in Highland Park, Illinois. “This could be a meaningful support for struggling American companies,” she said.

Pressure From China

Locke simultaneously is facing demands from his Chinese counterparts to end restrictions on U.S. exports of civilian technology with military applications, and to cut back on duties in dumping cases filed against Chinese products. The Commerce Department adjudicates dumping cases.

In a meeting yesterday with Locke, Chinese Vice Minister of Commerce Ma Xiuhong complained about U.S. export controls and barriers for Chinese companies to invest in the U.S., a senior Commerce Department official said. He declined to be identified when discussing a private meeting.

If personal popularity can ease tensions, Locke’s trip to China suggests he may meet the test. A Hong Kong interviewer asked him if he would run for president. (No, he said.) A television interviewer in Shanghai asked for a photo memento, for her and each of the crew.

“You are my hero,” Qi Ye, deputy director of the China Sustainable Energy Program in Beijing, told Locke at a luncheon in Beijing yesterday.

Being With Bono

Last October, during a visit to the opening of a Sam’s Club in his family’s native Guangdong province, onlookers rushed Locke’s delegation. Staff members formed a wall to extricate him from the fans.

“The only thing I could liken it to, is being with Bono” of the rock group U2, Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China who accompanied Locke on the October trip, said in an interview.

Locke’s grandfather immigrated from a village near Jiangmen city to Washington state more than a century ago, to work as a servant in exchange for English lessons. Locke’s parents were born in China too. Locke spoke a local dialect of Taishanese at home, and didn’t begin English lessons until he went to preschool in Seattle.

Yale, Boston

When he was 10, Locke’s family took him to see his grandmother, who had fled China and lived in a Hong Kong refugee camp. The family’s plan to leave him with the grandmother was abandoned when he became homesick and persuaded his parents to send him back to the U.S., he said.

Almost four decades later, after stops at Yale University and Boston University law school, Locke returned to China as Washington’s governor.

Jiang Zemin, China’s president at the time, broke protocol and asked the governor to come for a visit. His tour drew crowds at each stop, and led to newspaper photo spreads and local television coverage, Joe Borich, executive director of the Washington State China Relations Council, said in an interview.

“The only thing comparable I have seen” is when then- president Bill Clinton visited, said Borich, who accompanied Locke and was a Foreign Service officer in China for more than a decade.

As a private lawyer in 2006, after his gubernatorial term ended, Locke decided to lure current China President Hu Jintao to Seattle during his planned U.S. visit.

Dinner With Bill

When China’s State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan came to the U.S. to scout venues, Locke organized a dinner at a penthouse in the city’s tallest building, the Columbia Center, he recalled in the interview.

As they looked out over Elliot Bay at the distant Olympic Mountains on a rare, clear Seattle dusk, Locke said he pledged to have Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates host a dinner at Gates’s home if Hu would visit.

He just needed to work out one detail: “I hadn’t gotten Bill to agree to host him,” Locke said.

Gates did, and with his wife, Melinda, greeted Hu at their lodge-style estate overlooking Lake Washington, where they served smoked guinea fowl, Washington-grown asparagus and Alaskan halibut.

“Because you, Mr. Bill Gates, are a friend of China, I’m a friend of Microsoft,” Hu told Gates during the Seattle visit.

Before Hu arrived, China agreed to require computer makers to load legal software on new machines, helping unlock a $3 billion market for Microsoft. Days later, the maker of Windows software announced a $3.7 billion investment in China.

Victories like that are possible, Locke says.

“We have incredible opportunities for our companies with world-leading technology,” he said. “This is an extension of what I did as governor.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mark Drajem in Beijing at mdrajem@bloomberg.net.

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