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  A Friendly Dinner in Unfriendly Times

By Roxanne Roberts and David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 9, 1999; Page C1

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.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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