Gary Locke Enters the Fray Over Blind Chinese Dissident Chen Guangcheng

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Former governor Gary Locke, now the U.S. ambassador to China, has put himself squarely in the middle of the controversy over blind dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Press photos out of Beijing yesterday show Locke escorting Chen out of the U.S. embassy, where he had been holed up for days after escaping house arrest, to a local hospital. In one photo, a smiling Locke is shown shaking hands with Chen. In another, the two sit side by side in a car, with the ambassador looking on as Chen makes a phone call.

Locke's role is likely to piss off Chinese officials, who already are annoyed with him. Funnily enough, Locke's mild manner and lack of pretension--which contributed to his bland image in the governor's office--is seen as downright subversive by the Beijing bureaucracy.

That bureaucracy is apparently so swathed in money, luxury and assistants willing to do its every bidding that, according to a Reuters story this week, Locke is viewed as a troublemaker for doing nothing more than buying his own coffee, staying at a four-star instead of a five-star hotel and actually talking to the press.

Locke has also irritated Chinese officials by pointedly raising human rights issues. While far from shrill on the matter, he's taken a sharper tack than he did as Washington's governor, when he courted relations with Beijing in order to help Boeing, Microsoft and other local companies expand their operations in China. In January, Locke declared that human rights in China seems to be in a "down period" and "getting worse."

According to Reuters, Locke also brought up Chen with the governor of Shangdong province, where the dissident was under house arrest, a situation that the ambassador said "was of deep concern to the people of the U.S." The Reuters story suggests that the ongoing Chen imbroglio will be Locke's "biggest test" yet as an ambassador.

It also offers Locke another chance to make history. Having already been hailed as the first U.S. ambassador to China of Chinese descent, he might also be remembered as the diplomat who played a prominent role in bringing a persecuted dissident to freedom.

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