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BEIJING (AP) - U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, who oversaw the handling of potential crises over the flights to U.S. diplomatic missions by a persecuted legal activist and a high-profile police chief, said Wednesday he will step down early next year.
Locke, the first Chinese-American to hold the post, said he informed President Barack Obama earlier this month of his decision to rejoin his family in Seattle.
Locke, 63, known for his affable, non-confrontational style, placed a high priority on improving embassy efficiency and facilitating bilateral trade at a time when exchanges are growing rapidly.
Yet his time as ambassador witnessed two of the most delicate diplomatic episodes between the countries in years that had the potential to severely complicate relations.
In February 2012, Wang Lijun, the police chief in the western city of Chongqing, fled to a U.S. consulate in southwest China with information about the murder of a British businessman, setting off China's biggest political scandal in years.
Wang's intentions were unclear and he was taken into Chinese custody the next day after leaving the consulate on his own. Yet his flight led to the removal and subsequent sentencing to life imprisonment for corruption of Chongqing's leader, Bo Xilai, formerly one of China's most powerful politicians.
Just two months later, and days before then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Beijing, blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped house arrest and was given shelter in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where he remained for six days.
Locke spent hours each day with Chen and was photographed holding his hand as they entered a hospital, earning plaudits from the overseas human rights lobby. Chinese officials later allowed the activist and his family to leave the country to study in New York.
Locke, who is married with three children, took up the post in August 2011 after serving as U.S. commerce secretary and two terms as governor of Washington State.
In a statement, Locke listed increased U.S. exports to China, the promotion of Chinese investment in the U.S., and a reduction in waiting times for visas as major accomplishments of his time in office. The speeding up of visa issuance to just three to five days from the previous 70-100 days "significantly increased" Chinese business and tourism to the U.S., he said.
During his tenure, embassy officials "advanced American values" by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang, Locke said.
Shi Yinhong, an expert on China-U.S. relations at Renmin University, said Locke kept relations steady despite tensions over China's South China Sea territorial claims, its fraught relations with Japan, its increased military capability and its support for Syria's embattled government.
"He actually seldom, if ever, openly attacked China over those issues," Shi said. "He took a very cautious attitude. I think that was the right attitude to take, because otherwise he'd be adding fuel to the fire."
Locke created a buzz among ordinary Chinese even before he arrived in Beijing via a widely circulated photo of him wearing a backpack and trying to use a coupon to buy coffee at Seattle's airport. Many Chinese Internet users pointed out the contrast with Chinese bureaucrats, who routinely have aides carry their bags and attend to minor tasks.
This modest style irked the Chinese leadership. There was no hint of that on Wednesday, though, when a Foreign Ministry spokesman was asked what China thought of him. "Mr. Gary Locke has made active efforts in fostering China-U.S. communication and cooperation," Hong Lei said. "We would like to pay tribute to him."
Associated Press researcher Zhao Liang contributed to this report.
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