Obama to honor China's president with state dinner

President Barack Obama meets with China's President Hu Jintao in New York, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

January 17, 2011 6:55:57 AM PST
When Hu Jintao makes what is likely his final trip to Washington as China's president, he will get an honor he desperately wanted but was denied during his first visit nearly five years ago: a White House state dinner.

Symbolism and protocol are very important to the Chinese and the opulence of Wednesday's black-tie affair with President Barack Obama should be plenty satisfying for Hu, a 67-year-old hydroelectric engineer who has ruled the country since 2002. That could help the relationship between the leaders of the world's two largest economies.

A grand soiree is in the works, but some big questions remain. Will a celebrity chef do the cooking? Will first lady Michelle Obama's gown have an Oriental flair? Will the Obamas try to turn Hu on to American pop culture with their choice of entertainment?

Mrs. Obama, the White House social secretary, Julianna Smoot, and other staffers deeply immersed in pulling off the administration's third state dinner hope to avoid repeating the slights, both perceived and real, that marred Hu's reception for an April 2006 visit with President George W. Bush.

For starters, Hu was unhappy that Bush opted for lunch over a state dinner.

Bush held few state dinners as president, preferring workman-like visits with foreign leaders over eating meals in a tuxedo. He also was sensitive to concerns in the U.S. about human rights in China and was reluctant to be seen as going all out for Hu with a state dinner.

Hu was welcomed with a pomp-filled arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, including a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute. But the reception was spoiled when a woman protesting China's treatment of the banned Falun Gong religious movement began shouting during his remarks.

Bush personally apologized after they had retreated to the Oval Office.

During the ceremony, a White House announcer flubbed China's formal name by calling it the "Republic of China" instead of the "People's Republic of China." The Republic of China is the formal name for Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory.

Wednesday's affair will return the hospitality that Obama was shown at a state dinner in Beijing when he visited in November 2009.

A personal relationship between the two leaders is important, Asia watchers say. Obama and Hu will have at least two more years to work together; Hu is expected to step down from the presidency next year.

"It's such a big relationship. It's like two aircraft carriers," said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs in the Bush White House. "The only way you can move policy is at the very top and it requires a personal connection."