By Michael Martina
BEIJING (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke, whose term was marked by a dramatic diplomatic row over the fate of a human rights activist, said on Wednesday he would step down from his role early next year, for personal reasons.
Locke's departure will leave a temporary vacancy in Beijing at a time when the world's two largest economies must navigate what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called a "major-power relationship".
His 2-1/2 years as ambassador were highlighted by a tussle over blind activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped from house arrest to seek refuge in the embassy and secured a visa to travel to New York to study on a U.S.-brokered deal.
"When I met with President Obama earlier this month, I informed him of my decision to step down as ambassador in early 2014 to rejoin my family in Seattle," Locke said in a statement released by the U.S. embassy.
Locke is the first American of Chinese descent to head the U.S. embassy in Beijing. His grandfather emigrated from China to Washington state, and his father, who was also born in China, ran a grocery store in the United States.
Locke, a former commerce secretary, carried that role into his ambassadorship, pioneering his position as something of a travelling salesman, plugging American businesses and exports in province-by-province events to promote investment.
"Our efforts have focused on job creation in America by increasing exports to China, opening more markets for American companies, and promoting Chinese investment in the United States," Locke said.
He named increases in Chinese business and tourism travel to the United States and reducing wait times needed for Chinese to obtain visas as accomplishments.
"And we have advanced American values by meeting with religious leaders and human rights lawyers, and visiting Tibetan and Uighur ethnic minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang," he said.
Locke made rare trips to both restive western regions which are heavily populated by ethnic minorities that chafe at Chinese rule.
The length of Locke's tenure is consistent with that of other ambassadors who have spent several years in the post. In August 2011, Locke succeeded then Ambassador Jon Huntsman, who left after less than two years to make a run at the White House in the 2012 presidential election.
Locke was immediately popular when he arrived in Beijing, partly because of his Chinese descent, but also because of what Chinese viewed as his humble manner in contrast to perceptions of Chinese officials accustomed to the fawning of assistants.
He earned accolades from Chinese Internet users after images of him toting a backpack and buying his own coffee at a U.S. airport went viral. Some have said that ability to connect with Chinese citizens would be part of his legacy as ambassador.
But Chinese criticism of him mounted in 2012 over the Chen affair, which overshadowed high-level U.S.-Chinese foreign policy and economic talks.
News of Locke's decision to step down spread quickly on China's Twitter-like microblog, Sina Weibo, where users weighed in with both praise and criticism.
"As an envoy of U.S. and Chinese culture, Locke has made an indelible impact. He's a good example to all other officials, especially in terms of his work ethic," one user wrote.
"China's smog has defeated the American ambassador. In order to survive he's had no choice but to declare his resignation and return to beautiful Seattle!" another quipped.
(Reporting by Michael Martina, Additional reporting by Natalie Thomas; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)