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Obama Nominates Commerce Secretary Locke for China Ambassador Post

Gary Locke with President Obama (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Updated at 5:56 p.m. ET

Gary Locke is on track to be the first Chinese-American — and the first Asian American — to become U.S. ambassador to Beijing, but what may prove to be more important is that he is heading to China at a moment when that country is showing heightened anxiety over dissent at home and leeriness of other nations.

President Obama formally nominated the Commerce Secretary and former Washington governor to be ambassador to China Wednesday. If confirmed, he will succeed former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who is likely to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The president’s announcement was met with a seemingly warm reception in Beijing. (One newspaper that reflects hardliner views did warn, however, that Locke might try to use his “Chinese-looking face” to “swindle” the Chinese people.) But the bigger news in the Chinese capital these days is the Communist Party Congress that is supposed to pave the way for a change in the country’s leadership.

And that gathering is being cited as one reason for one of the toughest security crackdowns since Tienanmen Square 22 years ago. A more likely reason, say China experts, is fear that the democracy fever hitting the Middle East could rapidly spread. China’s army of Internet censors has been blocking such words as “Egypt” and “Jasmine Revolution” on the web. Any hints of demonstrations are met with security forces double or triple the size of the potential demonstrations. Foreign journalists report being harassed, and an order has rolled back the regulations that had eased restrictions on foreign reporters during the 2008 Olympics.

Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and a frequent NewsHour guest, described the Chinese tactics as “preventive repression,” aimed at making sure a minor incident does not mushroom into a major crisis.

“China is practically paranoid at the possibile political contagion from events in the Middle East, “Pei said. He said that feeling explained their “heavy handed” tactics against journalists and potential demonstrators and added the government is doing everything it can to prevent the free flow of information about the Middle East to Chinese citizens.

Even though his grandfather and father emigrated from China, the newly nominated Locke, unlike his predecessor, does not speak Mandarin. But he has considerable experience on the economic side of the U.S.-China relationship, as the governor of a state that has long seen its future in trade across the Pacific, as a lawyer doing business in China and in his current job as Commerce secretary.

As diplomatic professionals are quick to point out, foreign leaders are less impressed by ethnic credentials than the ability of the ambassador to pick up the phone and quickly reach the president, his national security adviser or secretary of State. Whether Locke, who has not been part of the president’s inner circle, will bring that gift to Beijing remains to be seen.

Follow Michael D. Mosettig on Twitter.

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