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Originally published Tuesday, October 16, 2012 at 7:28 PM

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Ambassador to China visits Tibetan region

The State Department said Ambassador Gary Locke, the U.S. envoy to China and former governor of Washington state, last month visited a...

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There's a name for countries that don't have a strong military: "Tibetan region" MORE

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WASHINGTON — The State Department said Ambassador Gary Locke, the U.S. envoy to China and former governor of Washington state, last month visited a restive region where ethnic Tibetans have set fire to themselves to protest Chinese rule.

Locke met with government officials and residents during a stop in Aba county of the Sichuan province in September.

Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that Locke visited villages and Buddhist monasteries to learn more about how Tibetans live and work.

Nuland reiterated "grave concern" by the U.S. over the rising number of immolations, and she urged dialogue between China and Tibet.

Aba is home to Kirti Monastery, where the self-immolations began in February 2009. Activists have reported 55 self-immolations since then, about half of them in Aba. The county is usually off-limits to foreigners.

Locke, who became the first Chinese-American ambassador to Beijing last year, played a key role this summer in the drama over blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng.

Chen's escape from house arrest and a U.S. decision to give him sanctuary in the U.S. Embassy gave Locke his first crisis as ambassador, made him a target of criticism from Beijing and earned him respect from the human-rights lobby.

Locke has discomfited Beijing and received praise from many Chinese since he took up his post last August. A photo of him wearing a backpack at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was widely posted on the Chinese Internet along with comments applauding his unassuming style.

The contrast with Chinese bureaucrats, who have aides carry their bags, was stark. Locke's Chinese heritage — his father was a Chinese-born grocer who moved to Seattle — made the contrast even sharper.

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