Last night's White House dinner for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was one of those polite affairs that prove you can get along with anyone -- even difficult guests -- for a few hours. Rather than dwelling on the rocky relationship between China and the United States, President Clinton and Premier Zhu simply decided to act as if they were the best of pals.

"As you said this morning, only good friends tell each other what they really think," said President Clinton in his toast to the premier. "If you are right about that, you have turned out to be a good friend indeed."

The president got a big laugh with that. All those uncomfortable subjects -- spies, human rights, Kosovo, illegal campaign contributions -- are not considered polite dinner conversation. "The premier is a good friend," said the Rev. Billy Graham, one of the 224 business and policy leaders who attended the dinner. Graham was happy to talk about Zhu's sense of humor, but steered clear of anything controversial. "I'm not going to get involved in political things."

China will be "a major force in the next century," said Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.). "We should spend more time than we have on China policy. It's far more important than some of the other things we're doing."

So important, in fact, that this was the second White House dinner for the country in two years. The Clintons welcomed Chinese President Jiang Zemin just 18 months ago at a glittering, friendly evening filled with the top names in American commerce. The prospect of a billion new customers put a spring in everyone's step. Clinton's trip to Beijing last summer signaled even closer ties.

What a difference a year can make. The visit of the Chinese premier comes with all sorts of nasty baggage, including allegations that Chinese spies stole nuclear warhead secrets and China's demand for an immediate halt of the Kosovo airstrikes. Relations were so tense that Chinese leaders seriously considered canceling Zhu's six-city tour, but decided to go ahead with the trip to meet with officials of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and other financial leaders.

But Clinton made it clear that the relationship with China is too important for anything to destroy it. On Wednesday, the president warned that the United States must not allow a "healthy argument to lead us toward a campaign-driven cold war with China." At yesterday's news conference with Zhu, Clinton called the human rights problems "troubling" but said a World Trade Organization agreement would "go far toward leveling the playing field."

"Despite our differences, the visit has been a success," proclaimed Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, the administration's point man on the developing espionage scandal.

It should come as no great surprise that most of the attendees at last night's dinner shared a positive view. The guest list was heavily salted with captains of industry -- manufacturing, technology, agriculture -- who would benefit most from expanded trade with China. America Online Chairman Stephen Case, Eastman Kodak Chairman George Fisher, Boeing CEO Philip Condit and IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner led the list of executives, which also included the heads of Motorola, Northwest Airlines, Ford, United Parcel Service and General Motors.

The business executives all were on message, as if they had huddled in the parking lot before walking in: China must be embraced as a trading partner and allowed into the World Trade Organization. They deflected pesky questions about high-tech secrets going astray. "Let the government comment on that," said Chris Galvin, CEO of Motorola.

But not everyone was willing to give China a pass on tough issues. Don Argue, a college president and religious activist, said China's record on religious freedom was "spotty." But after a private meeting with Zhu yesterday, Argue said he is confident the situation will improve.

The key to working with China is being "realistic," said former secretary of commerce Mickey Kantor.

"Realistic means where you disagree to try to address those issues in a thoughtful way," he said. "Where you agree smooths the way. But you've got to keep your eyes wide open."

The evening wasn't all work. A bit of glitter was provided by American artists: figure skater Michelle Kwan, author Amy Tan, filmmaker Joan Chen and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, one of the after-dinner performers. World Bank President James Wolfensohn was on hand -- not as an international banker, but as proud father. His daughter, Sara, played piano during the evening recital.

The mood was surprisingly lighthearted, no doubt inspired by the breezy theme of the night. Decorations for the 22 tables in the East Room were selected by Hillary Rodham Clinton to express "the exuberance of spring," according to her staff. Bamboo containers at the center of each table overflowed with flaming parrot tulips, Raphaela roses and oncidium orchids on red damask tablecloths set off by red and white china plates and gold flatware.

The toasts, for the most part, were equally festive and filled with friendly banter. With a translator repeating his words, Zhu said that as a schoolboy he had memorized Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but had forgotten it except for one part, which he exclaimed in halting English: "Of the people, by the people and for the people!" That got the biggest applause of the night.

The dinner menu is always planned with the guest of honor in mind. Zhu expressed a desire for vegetables, fish and fruit, and White House Chef Walter Scheib complied with more than 20 varieties of veggies sprinkled among three courses, including hard-to-find American delicacies like Bayou asparagus and new potatoes the size of peanuts. The main course was roasted salmon from Oregon on caramelized fennel and endive, and pastry chef Roland Mesnier fulfilled Zhu's yen for fruit with an orange sherbet and tea (from China) parfait, filled with fresh raspberries and surrounded by kumquat tartlets.

Zhu's interest in music inspired the after-dinner recital of American, Chinese and Argentine composers. The main piece was composed by Bright Sheng, a Chinese musician who arranged it especially for the occasion. It celebrated a harmony of cultural styles, with Ma's cello and Wolfensohn's piano interweaving with the pipa -- an ancient Chinese four-stringed lute played by musician Wu Man.

The performance, Ma said during a pre-dinner rehearsal, was a metaphor for the evening and, perhaps, for the future of the countries' relations. "It's really an opportunity to show what fabulous results can happen when you have the influence of one place and another working together," the cellist said.

Guests at the White House Dinner for Zhu Rongji

Guest list for last night's dinner for Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji:

Zhu Rongji, premier of the state council of the People's Republic of China, and Lao An

Wu Yi, state councillor

Wang Zhongyu, secretary-general of the state council

Tang Jiaxuan, minister of foreign affairs

Zeng Peiyan, chairman of the state development and planning commission

Shi Gaungsheng, minister of foreign trade and economic cooperation

Liu Huaqiu, special assistant to Premier Zhu Rongji

Gui Shiyong, director of the research office of the state council

Li Zhaoxing, ambassador of the People's Republic of China to the United States, and Qin Xiaomei

Ma Kai, deputy secretary-general of the state council

Yang Jiechi, vice minister of foreign affairs

Long Yongtu, chief negotiator of the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation

Li Wei, director of Premier Zhu Rongji's office

Zhang Yesui, director-general, protocol department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Madeleine K. Albright, secretary of state

Donald H. Argue, president of Northwest College, and Richard Cizik, director of government affairs, National Association of Evangelicals

Michael H. Armacost, president of the Brookings Institution, and Roberta Armacost

Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, former ambassador to Portugal, and Smith W. Bagley

Robert W. Barrie, senior government relations adviser, O'Connor & Hannan, LLP

Charlene Barshefsky, U.S. trade representative

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mo.)

Rep. Douglas Bereuter (R-Neb.), and Louise Bereuter

Samuel R. Berger, assistant to the president for national security affairs, and Susan Berger

Rep. Frederick C. Boucher (D-Va.), and Wendy Cronin

Edgar Bronfman Jr., president and CEO, Joseph E. Seagram and Sons Inc.

Harold Brown, counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Colene Brown

Shelby Bryan, president and CEO, ICG Communications, and Katherine Bryan

Zbigniew Brzezinski, counselor, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Emilie-Anna Brzezinski

Ronald W. Burkle, managing partner, Yucaipa Cos., and Janet Burkle

Phillip Burnett, executive vice president, National Cotton Council, and Margaret Burnett

Stephen M. Case, chairman and CEO, America Online, and Jean Case

David Chang, senior adviser, Panacom Inc., and Audrey Yu, vice president, Panacom Inc.

Edwin Chen, White House correspondent, The Los Angeles Times, and Meredith Chen

Joan Chen, filmmaker, and Peter Hui, physician

H. D. Cleberg, president and CEO, Farmland Industries Inc., and Clara Cleberg

Barber Conable, president, National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, and Charlotte Conable

Philip Condit, chairman, president and CEO, Boeing Co., and Geda Maso

Gregory B. Craig, partner, Williams and Connolly, and Derry Craig, Derry Noyes Graphics

Douglas N. Daft, president, Far East Group, Coca-Cola Co.

William M. Daley, secretary, Department of Commerce

John H. Dasburg, president and CEO, Northwest Airlines, and Mary Lou Dasburg

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Deborah Dingell, president, General Motors Foundation

George M.C. Fisher, chairman and CEO, Eastman Kodak Co., and Ann Fisher

William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of the board, Ford Motor Co., and Lisa Ford

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Sergio Pombo

Mary Mel French, chief of protocol of the United States

Felice Gaer, director, Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement for Human Rights, and Henryk Baran, professor of Russian, University of Albany, State University of New York

Chris Calvin, CEO, Motorola, and Cindy Galvin

Robert W. Gee, acting assistant secretary for fossil energy and assistant secretary of policy and international affairs, Department of Energy, and Pauline Gee

Rep. Samuel Gejdenson (D-Conn.) and Betsy Henley-Cohn, chairwoman, Birmingham Utilities

Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chairman and CEO, IBM Corp., and Robin Gerstner

Paul Gerwitz, professor of constitutional law, Yale Law School, and Zoe Baird, president, Markle Foundation

Jack Gherty, president and CEO, Land O'Lakes Inc.

Lukin T. Gilliland Jr., restaurateur, and Kimberly Cubine, vice president, Malchow, Adams & Hussey

Sue Ling Gin, chairman and CEO, Flying Food Group, and Lee Sands, chairman, international trade practice, Mayer, Brown and Platt

Daniel R. Glickman, secretary, Department of Agriculture, and Loretta Glickman, deputy chief of staff to the secretary of housing and urban development

James E. Goodwin, president and COO, United Airlines, and Ann Goodwin

The Rev. Billy Graham and Ruth Graham

Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman and CEO, American International Group, and Corinne Greenberg

Alan Greenspan, chairman, Federal Reserve System, and Andrea Mitchell, chief foreign affairs correspondent, NBC

Ruth R. Harkin, senior vice president of international affairs and government relations and chair, United Technologies, and George David, chairman, president and CEO, United Technologies

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.), and Cathy Hughes, owner and chair, Radio One

David D. Ho, director, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, and Susan Kuo Ho

Richard Holbrooke, vice chairman, Credit Suisse First Boston, and Kati Marton, author

Robert D. Hormats, vice chairman, Goldman Sachs International, and Judith Paulus, director of civic and international affairs, Sara Lee Corp.

Richard L. Huber, chairman, president and CEO, Aetna Inc., and Roberta Huber

J. Bennet Johnston, partner, Johnston & Associates, LLC and partner, Johnston Development Co., LLC, and Mary Johnston

Patty Judge, Iowa secretary of agriculture, and John Judge, state senator, Iowa

Mickey Kantor, partner, Mayer Brown and Platt, and Heidi Schulman, member, board of directors, Corporation for Public Broadcasting

James P. Kelly, chairman and CEO, United Parcel Service, and Jean Kelly

Mark Knoller, correspondent, CBS News, and Janet Leissner, vice president and Washington bureau chief, CBS News

Michelle Kwan, U.S. figure skating champion, and Shepard Goldberg, agent and manager for Kwan

David P. Lambert, senior vice president, public affairs, New York Stock Exchange, and Diana C. Lambert

Nicholas Lardy, senior fellow, foreign political studies, Brookings Institution, and Barbara Lardy, director of medical affairs, American Association of Health Plans

Harry Lee, sheriff, Jefferson Parish, La., and Lai Lee

Thomas H. Lee, president, Thomas H. Lee Co., and Ann G. Tenenbaum

Star Lerach, and Jonathan W. Cuneo, principal, the Cuneo Law Group

Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), and Victoria Levin

Arthur Levitt, chairman, Securities Exchange Commission, and Marylin Levitt

Kenneth G. Lieberthal, senior director, Asian affairs, National Security Council, and Jane Lieberthal

Vincent Lupinacci, president and CEO, Sunkist Growers Inc., and Norwood Lupinacci

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist, and Jill A. Hornor

Wu Man, pipa soloist

Rep. Robert Matsui (R-Calif.), and Doris Matsui, director of government relations and public policy, Collier, Shannon, Scott and Rill

Patrick J. McGovern, chairman of the board, International Data Group, and Lore McGovern

Ernset S. Micek, chairman and CEO, Cargill Inc., and Sally Micek

Herbert S. Miller, chairman, Western Development Corp. and American Malls International, and Patrice Miller

Leo F. Mullin, president, Delta Air Lines, and Leah Mullin

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and John Norton

Michel Oksenberg, Stanford University Asia Pacific Research Center, and Lois Oksenberg

William J. Perry, Stanford University International Relations Department, and Robin Allen, editor, Early Music America magazine

John D. Podesta, chief of staff to the president, and Mary Podesta

William Richardson, secretary of energy, and Barbara Richardson

Sanford Robertson, president, S.R. Robertson & Co., and Jeanne Robertson

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Sharon Rockefeller, CEO, WETA

Hilary Rosen, president, Recording Industry Association of America

Stanley Roth, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and Mara Rudman, House International Relations Committee

James R. Sasser, ambassador to the People's Republic of China, and Mary Sasser

Orville Schell, dean, University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism, and Baifang Liu, PBS-"Frontline" producer

Arthur Schneier, president, Appeal of Conscience Foundation, and Elisabeth Schneier

Katharine Seelye, New York Times White House correspondent, and David E. Sanger, New York Times Washington correspondent

Henry H. Shelton, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Carolyn Shelton

Bright Sheng, composer

Frederick W. Smith, chairman, FDX Corp., and Diane Smith

John F. Smith Jr., chairman, General Motors Corp., and Lydia Smith

James Steinberg, deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs, and Sherburne Abbott, executive director, National Academy of Sciences Board on Unsustainable Development

Sy Sternberg, president, New York Life Insurance Co., and Laurette Sternberg

Lawrence Summers, deputy treasury secretary, and Victoria Summers

S. Donald Sussman, CEO, Paloma Partners Management Co., and Michele McGovern

Amy Tan, author, and Lou DeMattei, tax attorney

Yuan Yuan Tan, dancer, and Clay Fok

Henry Tang, chairman, Committee of 100, and Alice Young, director, Committee of 100

Christina Tchen, partner, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Charles F. Smith, partner, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom

Chang-Lin Tien, professor, University of California, Berkeley, and Di-Hwa Tien

Karen Tumulty, Time magazine White House correspondent, and Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times Pentagon correspondent

Lyn Utrecht, partner, Ryan, Phillips, Utrecht & MacKinnon, and Barry Weinberg, deputy chief, Department of Justice

Jack Valenti, CEO, Motion Picture Association of America, and Mary Margaret Valenti

Ya-Yue J. Van, president, Molecular Kinetics

James D. Wolfensohn, president, World Bank, and Elaine Wolfensohn

Sara Wolfensohn, pianist

Yeni Wong, chair, Riverdale International Holding, and Glenn Golonka

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) and Michelle Wu

Janet Yellen, chair, Council of Economic Advisers, and George Akerlof, professor, University of California, Berkeley

CAPTION: Premier Zhu Rongji and his wife, Lao An, arriving with the Clintons at last night's state dinner, the second for a Chinese leader in 18 months.

CAPTION: NBC's Andrea Mitchell and husband Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve chairman, arrive for the White House dinner honoring China's premier.