Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, now President Obama’s choice for ambassador to China, got a largely friendly welcome from a Senate panel considering his nomination Thursday.

Locke, the son of immigrants, would be the first Chinese American to serve as ambassador to that country. On Thursday, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would press the Chinese government — and the Chinese people — to see that market and legal reforms were in their own best interests.

In particular, Locke said China should accede to a long-standing U.S. demand that it allow its currency to “float” more freely.

That and other economic changes, he said, would allow Chinese consumers to purchase more American goods — helping the U.S. economy and satisfying China’s demand for greater material prosperity.

“There’s a hunger for greater prosperity and a higher standard of living,” Locke said. “United States companies and the United States government can help meet those needs.”

Locke also described “very significant concerns” about human rights, noting that China had recently cracked down on bloggers, journalists and lawyers.

Senators questioned Locke about how to ensure Chinese companies would adhere to intellectual-property laws and curb the copyright infringement and software piracy that have cost U.S. firms.

Locke said he would make the case directly to Chinese young people, saying that piracy would eventually hurt their inventions and businesses as well.

“Those investments could be stolen, and could be appropriated by others,” Locke said. “And that’s not in the self-interest of either Chinese entrepreneurs, Chinese companies or the Chinese government.”

Locke has been nominated to replace former ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr., who left office in April to pursue a presidential bid. Locke’s nomination has been the subject of debate in China, as residents wonder how his ethnic background will affect his relationship with the Chinese government.

Locke actually speaks far less Mandarin Chinese that Huntsman: Locke’s family immigrated from Hong Kong and spoke a language derived from Cantonese.

The committee has not set a date for a vote on Locke’s nomination.