Gary Locke to Step Down as U.S. Ambassador to China in Early 2014

Gary Locke, the U.S. ambassador to China, announced that he will step down from his diplomatic post in early 2014 for personal reasons.

"When I met with President Obama earlier this month, I informed him of my decision to step down as ambassador in early 2014 to rejoin my family in Seattle," Locke said in a statement released by the US embassy in Beijing.

Locke's wife Mona and their three children had already moved back to Seattle earlier this year. In a column earlier this month published in The Seattle Times, Mona Locke wrote about the reasons for the move.

"Gary and I wanted our family to have a place to call 'home,'?" she wrote. "We needed a home where our kids could attend local schools, make lifelong friends, and learn to value community and to help others."

Locke, a former U.S. secretary of commerce and two-term governor of Washington, began his term as ambassador in August 2011 and is the first American of Chinese descent to serve as the U.S. envoy to Beijing.

Locke was instantly popular with everyday Chinese for his low-key affability. Even before he arrived in Beijing, a photo of Locke wearing a backpack buying his own coffee at an airport Starbucks with his youngest daughter went viral on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter. Chinese netizens were quick to point out at the time that not even low-level Chinese officials would buy their own coffee.

Locke made yearly visits to his ancestral home of Taishan in southern China. Both Locke's father and grandfather were born there.

The 63-year-old Locke's tenure as the US's top diplomat in China was marked by two dramatic episodes that had him delicately navigating some stormy diplomatic waters that had the threatened to derail Sino-U.S. relations.

The first came just months after Locke's arrival in February 2012 when Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun made a desperate attempt to hide in the U.S. consulate in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu. That incident triggered the fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai, the biggest political scandal China had seen in decades.

Less than three months later, the blind activist Chen Guangcheng sought refuge in the U.S. embassy after a dramatic escape from house arrest, sparking a diplomatic row between the U.S. and China just as high level talks were underway in Beijing. At the time, Locke was involved in brokering a deal that eventually allowed Chen to leave China to study in United States.

Images that emerged from the incident memorably showed Locke taking Chen's hand as they escorted him to a local Beijing hospital to seek medical treatment.

In his statement, Locke reflected on what he was able to achieve during his time in Beijing. He said he and his staff were particularly focused on U.S. job creation by increasing exports to China and promoting Chinese investment in the States.

Locke is also particularly proud that he and his staff were able to reduce waiting times for a U.S. visa from highs of 70 to 100 days to just three to five days.

"Finally, as I reflect on my tenure as ambassador, I do so knowing that U.S.-China relations continue to grow stronger," he said in his statement.

"While our bilateral relationship is a complex one, I remain confident in the ability of our leaders to manage differences and increase cooperation in areas of mutual concern to the benefit of not just our two great peoples, but the entire world."