- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2011

BEIJING China’s deteriorating human rights record is a growing concern for the United States, even as overall ties between the countries become more entwined, U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke said Wednesday.

With China drawing criticism from candidates in the U.S. presidential campaign and Beijing changing Communist Party leaders next year, Mr. Locke said the Obama administration would work to maintain forward momentum in relations, including coaxing China to open wider to U.S. exports and investment to create more American jobs.

In an interview, Mr. Locke reflected on his four months as the top U.S. diplomat in China, from efforts to cut the time Chinese have to wait to get visas, to cooperation on clean energy research, to his own unexpected celebrity as the first Chinese-American ambassador.

“When we’re having lunch with the family … or we’re going to a supermarket, we’re stopped by people who want pictures, even at the airport or on an airplane,” Mr. Locke said at the U.S. Embassy during a lunch of sandwiches and pasta salad, indicative of the down-to-earth personal style that has won him kudos from many among the Chinese public.

Mr. Locke said the Foreign Ministry has summoned him only once for a dressing down, late one September night over the administration’s decision to upgrade the U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets of Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy claimed by China.

Long involved in China issues, first as governor of Washington state and then as commerce secretary, Mr. Locke described Beijing’s reaction to the $5.85 billion deal as strong, but said overall relations did not plummet the way they did after some previous U.S. arms sales.

Recent initiatives by President Obama to strengthen U.S. military alliances with Australia and other countries on China’s edge have not caused undue friction, Mr. Locke said, signs of the breadth of ties between the world’s largest and second-largest economies.

“The U.S.-China relationship is certainly stronger than ever before, much more complex than ever before,” Mr. Locke said. “The economies of China and the U.S. have become much more sophisticated and much more complex” since the start of diplomatic relations 33 years ago.

However, Mr. Locke expressed strong concerns over China’s rights record, saying abuses had been rising over the past year as Chinese leaders worried that the democratic uprisings that swept Egypt and other Arab countries might spread to China.

He cited the widespread detention and arrest of activists and lawyers and a lack of judicial independence.

“It’s getting worse. I think certainly the last several months, or actually the last year or so, we’ve seen developments and incidents that give us great pause and a great deal of concern,” Mr. Locke said.