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China's Internet users bid adieu to US ambassador Gary Locke

U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke gestures as he delivers a speech at Peking University in Beijing on September 1, 2012. Photo: Reuters

Chinese Internet users are using the U.S. ambassador to China’s resignation to voice their complaints on two frequently debated topics—the country’s pollution problems and profligate spending by high-ranking government officials.

Their comments, in response to an announcement from the U.S. Embassy that Gary Locke would step down from his post early next year, are drawing jokes and speculation from Weibo users that the the city’s bad air, in particular, might be to blame for the former commerce secretary’s departure.

As Jeremy Page reports, Mr. Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the post in China, told President Obama that he was resigning to be closer to his family:

“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,” Mr. Locke said.

Mr. Locke’s wife and three children moved to Beijing with him in 2011 but returned to Seattle several months ago primarily so his eldest daughter could finish high school there, according to embassy staff. The staff said there was no official word yet on his replacement.

The U.S. ambassador has been in his post for 2 ½ years. His predecessor, John Huntsman, was in the post for just under two years before he returned to the U.S. to make a run for a 2012 presidential bid.

Mr. Locke has overseen some of the most fraught moments in recent U.S.-Chinese relations, from the downfall of Communist Party high-flier Bo Xilai that began when Mr. Bo’s police chief fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu to blind activist Chen Guangcheng’s seeking protection at the U.S. Embassy after escaping house arrest.

Mr. Locke’s tenure in China also comes at a time when the country’s citizens have become more vocal than ever on sensitive topics, ranging from the government’s failure to clean up the chronic pollution plaguing Chinese cities to officials’ use of public funds to buy expensive gifts and other forms of luxury entertainment at the expense of the working class.

As one user of China’s popular Sina Weibo microblogging platform speculated: “The haze in Beijing is so bad that Gary Locke couldn’t take it anymore.”

“Even his family left” because of it, said another.

Mr. Locke responded to some of the online chatter in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, telling the paper: “We are concerned about (air quality), but that’s not what motivated us to go back.”

The last time Weibo users responded in such a big way to Mr. Locke was in 2011, when a photo of the ambassador ordering coffee at an airport Starbucks while carrying his own luggage went viral, with Chinese users heralding him as the antithesis of China’s public officials. He was reportedly trying to buy his coffee with a coupon that the barista rejected. Accounts say he responded by politely pulling out a credit card instead to pay.

At least one user speculated that the ambassador was leaving in part because of frustration related to the excessive spending habits of China’s bureaucrats. “He probably couldn’t take the gap between how China and the U.S. spend their public funds,” he said.

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