For Hu Jintao's state visit, a day of pomp and ceremony

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama greeted Chinese President Hu Jintao as he arrived at the White House.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 12:00 AM

It's the mantra of Washington these days: Can't we treat each other with civility and respect?

Wednesday night's state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao was international diplomacy's version of playing nice: gracious words, bipartisan patriotism and hardly any mentions of those uncomfortable issues that put a damper on a good party (although a hardy crowd of protesters outside the White House greeted arriving guests). The evening's theme was all-American, with elegant nods to Chinese culture; the guest list of 225 mixed politicians, business leaders, celebrities and a number of prominent Chinese Americans including Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, movie star Jackie Chan, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and designer Vera Wang, wearing - you guessed it - Vera Wang.

And Barbra Streisand, who oddly quipped that she was invited because, once upon a time, "I worked in a Chinese restaurant."

The serious business having been completed earlier in the day, the evening was devoted to fine food, wine, camaraderie and generous toasts.

"While it's easy to focus on our differences of culture and perspective," President Obama said in his dinner remarks, "let us never forget the values that our people share: a reverence for family; the belief that, with education and hard work and with sacrifice, the future is what we make it; and most of all, the desire to give our children a better life."

And the best warm fuzzy of all, Obama broke some news. "Under a new agreement, our National Zoo will continue to dazzle children and visitors with the beloved giant pandas." The guests, of course, broke into laughter and applause.

Hu was equally magnanimous in his response: "In recent years, particularly over the past two years since President Obama took office, China-U.S. relations have made strong headway, thanks to the joint efforts of both sides. . . . I am confident that with joint efforts, a China-U.S. cooperative partnership will yield bountiful fruits for the greater benefit of our people, and make new and bigger contribution to the noble cause of world peace and development."

This state visit - a coveted symbol of respect - was years in the making: The last official state dinner for China was held in 1997, when Bill Clinton hosted Jiang Zemin. When Hu came to Washington in 2006, George W. Bush hosted a lunch for the leader, not a dinner, and did not designate the occasion a state visit, although the Chinese claimed otherwise.

Making this guest list was not a simple matter. Guests included former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and prominent Chinese American government officials and politicians: Energy Secretary Steven Chu; Commerce Secretary Gary Locke; Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress; Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, Calif.; Edwin Lee, interim mayor of San Francisco. Also on hand were two rising GOP stars: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Among the business set was John Chen, chairman of the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese American business leaders. Washington old-timers included Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Not in attendance was House Speaker John Boehner, who created quite a buzz when he declined - once again - to show up, the third time he has said no to Obama's invitation to a state event. (House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accepted the invite and sat next to David Axelrod.)

With the recent call for respect and for civility in Washington, said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), it is "up to individual senators and members of Congress to tone down the rhetoric and find compromise. You can't come here with a scorched-earth policy and expect to do the nation's business and serve our greater interests."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company