Interview

Human Rights, Snowden, and How Not to Get Hacked

The U.S. ambassador to China speaks to Foreign Policy.

There was a time when a crackdown following an attack on Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heart of Beijing, would provoke a statement from the United States urging China to respect human rights. But Gary Locke is an ambassador of a different era. Now, increasingly complex economic ties, the fallout from whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaks, and the shift in the balance of power between the two nations means that Locke is increasingly expected to accommodate China, not criticize it.

A former commerce secretary and governor of the state of Washington, Locke's tenure has been a diplomatic juggling act, encompassing the May 2012 diplomatic standoff over the fate of blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, the fall of Chinese politician Bo Xilai (precipitated by an aide's attempted defection to a U.S. consulate), and revelations that both the United States and China engage in widespread hacking.

On Oct. 31, three days after a car driven by a member of China's beleaguered Uighur minority group exploded on an avenue outside of Tiananmen Square, I sat down with the ambassador in the J.W. Marriott in downtown Washington, DC, for an interview. We discussed Edward Snowden's effect on the U.S.-China relationship, how to stay safe from hacking, and the very particular phrase he used to convey U.S. opinions on Chinese human rights violations. (The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.) His responses, below, are telling.

Foreign Policy: With the debt crisis in October, has China ever pushed you to push the United States to get its economic house in order?

Gary Locke: No, they know that we are getting our economic house in order. The Chinese government wants a strong and quick economic recovery in the United States because they know they benefit from more Americans working, having more money in their pockets and spending it in department stores -- because a large percentage of what Americans buy everyday is made in China.

FP: In October 2012, U.S. lawmakers said Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei poses a national security threat to the United States. Since the Snowden leaks, how have the Chinese reacted differently in discussions about Huawei?

GL: It really hasn't changed the tenor of our discussions about Huawei.

FP: This is one of the most polluted years in China in recent memory. Are there any plans to cut back on monitoring the pollution in Beijing?

GL: No, not at all. If there is one thing we are very, very proud of, which shows the power of American values and American environmentalism, it's the monitors for PM 2.5 [airborne particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers] on top of not just the U.S. embassy in Beijing, but now on all of our consulates throughout China.

I've been to so many parts of China, talking and meeting with Chinese people who don't know a single word of English other than "hello," "goodbye," and "PM 2.5." More people in China know the concept and phrase PM 2.5 than Americans.

FP: Do you presume that the information NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden carried with him in his laptops to Hong Kong has been compromised by the Chinese?

GL: I have no information. I wouldn't be able to comment on that at all.

FP: Is that the impression among the people you've spoken with?

GL: That issue has not come up in my discussions with Chinese government officials.

FP: In a recent New York Times interview, Snowden said his familiarity with China's intelligence abilities means there was a "zero percent" chance the Chinese have received any of his documents.

GL: I'm not aware of that interview, and I'm not in a position to comment on anything Mr. Snowden has said.

FP: Has he made your job more difficult?

GL: China is always a challenging environment, but I'm really proud of the great accomplishments we as an embassy and mission have been able to make.

FP: Has your phone or computer ever been hacked?

GL: Not that I know of. But I wouldn't know!

FP: Your predecessor as U.S. commerce secretary, Carlos M. Gutierrez, was reportedly hacked in 2008. What precautions do you and your staff take in China, or in other parts of the world, to protect your devices?

GL: When we were in the Commerce Department, anywhere we went, we had our phones, Blackberries, and equipment checked before we left the United States and had it checked as soon as we got back. As ambassador, we follow State Department procedures.

FP: You don't have stricter procedures in China, than, say France or South Korea?

GL: I think State Department procedures are tailored to different parts of the world. But I think most of the procedures are standard and good practices, wherever you go.

FP: Can you have a phone with you in a meeting with high-ranking Chinese officials? Is that allowed?

GL: Yes.

FP: A phone that's on? Do State Department procedures allow you to have a phone that's on during a meeting with, say, China's foreign minister or a vice foreign minister?

GL: Well, let me just say that I exercise a lot of caution wherever I go when I have a cellphone, even in the United States.

FP: What's the U.S. position on the Oct. 28 attack just outside of Beijing's Tiananmen Square, which killed five people and wounded at least 42?

GL: We deplore any and all acts of terrorism. Our condolences go out to all the victims of that car crash, in which bystanders, tourists from other countries and from within China, and police officers were seriously injured.

FP: Was it an act of terrorism?

GL: Well, that's what the Chinese are saying. We have no independent information, but again the United States deplores any and all types of terrorism.

FP: How do you think this will affect tensions among the Han Chinese and Uighurs throughout the country? [Ed note: On Oct. 30, Beijing stated a man with a Uighur name drove the car, and arrested five other Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim minority who live mostly in the northwestern Chinese territory of Xinjiang, for planning "holy war." They have since identified the driver as a Uighur from Xinjiang.]

GL: I don't know what Chinese authorities plan to do, so I can't really speculate on that. We've long believed that the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of different ethnic minority groups throughout China.

FP: Are the Chinese committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: Well, we've said all along that we believe that the Chinese government should try to be more respectful of the different cultures, religions, and languages within Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. China does have many other different ethnic minorities and...

FP: So you have no position on whether the Chinese are committing human rights violations in Xinjiang?

GL: We have said repeatedly that we believe the Chinese government should try to preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: But the question of human rights is not something you're willing to comment on? It's seems like there are two different things here. You can preserve the culture, the language, and the customs of the Uighur people and commit human rights violations, or not preserve them and not commit human rights violations. I'm wondering, what is the U.S. position on human rights issues in Xinjiang?

GL: We think there should be greater tolerance and respect for the religious practices and the cultural practices and the language of the Uighur people in Xinjiang.

FP: Beyond what you've said before, there's no additional position the U.S. government takes on, say, rounding up young Uighur men and holding them in extralegal detention?

GL: We have great concerns about many of the police practices throughout China, whether targeted towards minorities or Han Chinese.

FP: But no extra concerns about Uighurs?

GL: We have very deep concerns about the Uighur community in terms of less accommodation and less acceptance of the very distinct cultural aspects of the Uighur community. We believe there should be greater tolerance and embracing of different cultures, languages, and customs.

FP: Since February 2009, at least 122 Tibetans have reportedly self-immolated, many in protest of repressive policies in the western Chinese region of Tibet. How do you see the situation unfolding in Lhasa, the region's capital city?

GL: I was able to visit last June, and again we believe the Chinese government should embrace more the customs, the religions, and the culture of the Tibetan people. We believe they should have greater interaction with the Tibetan leaders in Tibet.

FP: Not the Dalai Lama?

GL: Our position is very clear on that. We don't support independence of Tibet, and we urge the Chinese government to meet with the representatives of the Dalai Lama. That's a long-standing position.

We believe that many tensions both in Xinjiang and in Tibet could be alleviated if the Chinese people engaged with the leaders of those communities and really try to address the issues that the Uighurs have with respect to the practicing of their religion, and promotion of language and culture.

FP: Would it be fair to say that your position is that, while there are tensions in Xinjiang and Tibet, and while you believe the Chinese government should embrace the culture, religion, and customs of Uighurs and Tibetans,  human rights violations do not play a part of that calculus?

GL: No, no, not at all. We're very concerned about the human rights conditions in China.

FP: In China, or in Xinjiang and Tibet?

GL: In all places in China, including Xinjiang and Tibet.

FP: Sure but human rights issues, in say, the [wealthy eastern province] Hebei are not...

GL: We've noticed a greater crackdown on people who are speaking out about political issues, environmental issues.

FP: For an outside observer who has never been to China and is not familiar with the situation, from reading this interview, they would get the impression that the U.S. government view is that the human rights situation in China is the same in Beijing, as it is in [the northeastern province of] Jilin, as it is in Tibet and Xinjiang.

GL: Being able to practice your religion and maintain your culture is part of human rights, and to the extent that there is less tolerance for that in Xinjiang and Tibet, is part of human rights.

FP: Ok. I'll stop harping on that point. Let's go to a slightly easier topic: How confident do Chinese leaders appear to be in Kim Jong Un's leadership and the stability of North Korea?

GL: Our interactions with the Chinese government have indicated a common interest in preventing the North Koreans from developing a nuclear weapon.

FP: Since Japan's Sept. 2012 nationalization of the Senkakus, an island chain administered by Japan but claimed by China, tensions between the two nations have been high. How worried are you about war breaking out between China and Japan?

GL: The thing we are most concerned about is unintended incidences that can suddenly flare up and cause even greater instability, and unintended conflict. As Vice President Biden is fond of saying, his father told him that what's worse than an intended conflict is an unintended conflict.

FP: Do the Chinese believe the United States will honor its security arrangement with Japan if they attack the Senkakus?

GL: You'd have to ask them. I can't get into their minds. But our position has been made very clear by a host of U.S. government officials.

FP: What was your take on the trial of fallen Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, which saw him sentenced to life in prison in Sept. 2013 for the charges of bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power?

GL: Not at all unexpected. The courts are still controlled by the government. We were all expecting a firm and strong sentence. At the same time, we expected him to be able to mount a defense.

FP: There is a rumor floating around that former Premier Wen Jiabao is under suspicion, after an Oct. 2012 New York Times story that reported his family has controlled at least $2.7 billion in assets.

GL: I have no information about that.

FP: There have been reports in Western newspapers that the controversial former Chinese security czar Zhou Yongkang is under investigation. This would make him the highest-ranking official to fall in China in decades. Is he being investigated?

GL: I have really no idea. We have no information to that. We've seen reports that various people in [China National Petroleum Corporation], the oil and gas company that he used to be affiliated with, are under investigation. But that's all we know.

FP: It seems that the fate of Zhou is one of the most important stories potentially happening in China right now. I'm wondering if you could offer any insight on that?

GL: We have no information on that issue at all.

MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

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