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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Gary Locke, the first Chinese-American ambassador to China, has attracted both praise and criticism in Beijing for his no-frills style. Now, he could face his biggest test as a diplomat in talks over the fate of a blind Chinese dissident.
The former Washington state governor and Eagle Scout's clean-cut image helped land him the job as President Barack Obama's first Commerce Secretary in 2009. Two years later, Locke's Chinese heritage added historic resonance to his appointment as envoy to Beijing.
He has the difficult job of helping the United States balance its support for human rights with the desire for cooperation with Beijing over economic and global security problems.
The clash between those two goals has been starkly drawn by the drama over Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who escaped house arrest in rural China last week and is widely thought to be at the U.S. embassy in Beijing.
Locke, 62, told Reuters in November that he raised the issue of Chen's detention with the governor of Shandong province, Jiang Deming, and told him it was "of deep concern to the people of the U.S."
Chen, who was being kept under very restrictive conditions at his home in a village in Shandong until his escape, "has fulfilled his sentence and the restrictions should be removed" and that "preventing anyone from seeing him only invites more controversy," Locke said he told Jiang.
Chen's dramatic escape has overshadowed high-level U.S.-Chinese foreign policy and economic talks slated for later this week and complicated ties between the world's two largest economies. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will be in Beijing for the Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting.
Locke's Chinese grandfather moved to the United States in the 1890s and worked as a servant in Olympia, Washington - about a mile from the mansion where Locke would later live as governor - before returning to China for a number of years.
Locke's father, who was born in China and moved with his parents to the United States in the 1930s, ran a grocery store and fought for the United States in World War Two.
Photographs of Locke buying his own coffee and carrying his own luggage on his trip to take up his post in Beijing caused a sensation among ordinary Chinese who could not imagine their own leaders traveling without a huge entourage.
But some Chinese press reports, possibly reflecting government views, have dismissed Locke's down-to-earth style "as an act designed to cause trouble in China," said Kenneth Lieberthal, an expert on China at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
Episodes such as a U.S. embassy decision to save money by staying at a four-star hotel instead of a five-star hotel are portrayed as "little pin pricks to complicate the life of Chinese officials and potentially weaken the system," he said.
Although Locke had not previously served as an ambassador, he had negotiated with the Chinese many times as secretary of commerce. During one trip to Guangdong Province, he appeared at a number of small contract signings and ribbon-cuttings, leaving the local Chinese press - for whom Locke is a celebrity - amazed at their chance to interact with such a high-level U.S. official.
On another trip, Locke said he did not think his "Chinese face" made any difference in bargaining with Beijing. "I'm proud of my Chinese heritage and the contribution of China for thousands of year, but I'm 100 percent American," Locke said.
With U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell already in Beijing and Clinton arriving early on Wednesday, Locke's role in the Chen case could be limited in the next few days.
But the situation might not be resolved by the time this week's meeting wraps up on Friday and Locke could be called upon to play a bigger role.
James Lilley, the ambassador at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, harbored the dissident Fang Lizhi in the U.S. embassy in Beijing for more than a year in 1989-90 before his exile to the United States was negotiated.
"It's hard to imagine that (Locke) would not be significantly involved in and potentially significantly affected by the outcome" of the case, Lieberthal said.
Locke, who has a law degree from Boston University, has made history as "the first Chinese-American" in office after office over the past three decades.
After serving in the Washington state legislature and later as a chief county executive in the Seattle area, he was elected governor of the state in 1996 and easily won re-election in 2000.
As commerce secretary, Locke was one of several Cabinet members who played a subordinate role because the White House was so dominant in shaping policy, said Claude Barfield, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute think tank in Washington.
Locke "did not emerge as a strong leader because it was not possible given the way the president runs his administration," Barfield said. "He was just one in a long line of anonymous commerce secretaries."
Current and former aides paint a different picture, saying Locke's leadership was instrumental in helping to boost U.S. exports, completing the 2010 census on time and streamlining the patent approval process to reduce a huge backlog.
As ambassador, "Locke is deeply involved in all issues between the U.S. and Chinese government, including human rights," a U.S. official said, speaking on condition he not be identified.
"Like President Obama and Secretary Clinton, he frequently raises particular human rights cases with senior Chinese officials. He also regularly meets directly with rights advocates in China," the official said.
The official described Locke's management style as "cool under fire," going back to his tenure in Washington state where he faced such management challenges as the anti-World Trade Organization riots in Seattle and devastating forest fires.
Aides who worked with Locke at the Commerce Department said his humble demeanor is not an act, but say their former boss also recognizes his Chinese ancestry means everything he does in China carries a special resonance.
"I think he saw the historical significance of his appointment and that he might have the opportunity to connect with the Chinese people in a way that his predecessors couldn't," said Kevin Griffis, former director of public affairs at the Commerce Department.
Griffis said pictures of Locke rubbing shoulders with ordinary Chinese citizens match perfectly with his memory of the former Cabinet official who once brought a power drill to the Commerce Department to attach a handle to a television studio door that was difficult for staffers to close.
"He is a very down-to-earth and practical person and someone who doesn't mind, and in fact enjoys, getting his hands dirty in that sort of way," Griffis said.
Parita Shah, a former Commerce Department aide who helped Locke during his first months in Beijing as ambassador, said she was always surprised by how much attention he gets in China "for essentially being himself."
"He went around Beijing and China the first few weeks he was there and was greeted with loud, raucous crowds. People were just so excited to be near him, to touch him, to hear from him. It was really exciting to see," Shah said.
Additional reporting by Lucy Hornby in Beijing; Editing by Martin Howell and Will Dunham