NPR logo

Hosting China's President Takes A Delicate Touch

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Hosting China's President Takes A Delicate Touch

Around the Nation

Hosting China's President Takes A Delicate Touch

Hosting China's President Takes A Delicate Touch

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

China President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington, D.C., this week meant a maze of etiquette hurdles for the White House to navigate, especially given an awkward history of Chinese presidential visits. Host Scott Simon talks about how the week went with Ken Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution.


Planning for out-of-town visitors can be a huge chore. Do they like meat loaf? What do they want to see besides Disneyland? The situation can be especially awkward when the visitor is the leader of a super-power to whom you owe a lot of money, a country with conflicting interests, and conflicting views on urgent issues. And oh, last time the visitor stopped by, things didn't go so well.

That was the starting point for the Obama administration this week when they received Chinese President Hu Jintao: sought to strike just the right note to indicate respect without groveling.

With President Hu's U.S. visit done, we stop for a post-game etiquette review with Ken Lieberthal. He oversaw China policy in the Clinton White House. He's director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Lieberthal, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KEN LIEBERTHAL (Director, John L. Thorton China Center, Brookings Institution): Pleasure to be with you.

SIMON: Now help us remember exactly what happened last time, I guess in 2006. There was a slip-up involving Taiwan, for example.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: There was more than one slip-up in 2006. First of all, President George W. Bush, who by the way got along very well with President Hu Jintao, their personal chemistry was really quite good, refused to have President Hu here for a full state visit. So he gave him a visit that was one notch down the protocol order, an official working visit. That turned out to be only the beginning of the trouble. At the arrival ceremony the translator mistakenly announced the anthem being played would be that of the Republic of China instead of the People's Republic of China. The Republic of China is the name of the government on Taiwan seen as illegitimate by Beijing.

Then a dissident got into the arrival ceremony and began to remonstrate very loudly as President Hu began his remarks. And as it turns out, she was able to continue for a full five minutes.

SIMON: Would we be correct to assume that the president gets at least a brief and maybe more about some language pitfalls that ought to be avoided?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: I am sure that he sought and received advice on the kind of personal etiquette of a discussion with the Chinese leader. One of the things I would say to him - and I did say to President Clinton and others, is that Chinese will often, when asked a question, give the first part of an answer and then pause. And they pause to consider the rest of the answer. And after an uncomfortably long break, will then pick up again and often say the most interesting thing in response to your question.

Americans tend to detest pauses. So when someone pauses, we culturally are just so anxious to jump in, that we start talking and you never get the second part of the answer.

SIMON: I'm just letting that all sink in. Tell me about something as fundamental as the seating chart.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: The Chinese read more into what is conveyed by where someone is seated and who is seated next to them, than most Americans would. They see it as reflecting respect. I recently co-managed a U.S. clean energy forum, and not surprisingly, the Chinese handed us the protocol order going from one to 116, and asked for our protocol order in return. And frankly, I defy anyone to rank 116 Americans in protocol order. We just don't think in quite the same terms.

SIMON: Do people remember slights?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: Of course they do.

SIMON: So there's not a feeling of well, that was a previous administration, or I know you had nothing to do with...

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: You can be very sure, I am utterly confident when I say the White House devoted enormous attention to making sure that if there were any slights in this visit, they weren't going to be the same ones that occurred in 2006, and you can be sure the Chinese were focused like a laser beam on that.

SIMON: How does the man who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize shake hands and give a state dinner to a man who imprisons the 2010 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize?

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: The President welcomed Hu Jintao here, not to agree with him on everything, but to establish the best possible capacity to work together on the issues that are of tremendous importance where we can work together, and to at the same time express our views on issues where we disagree, and Hu Jintao did the same thing in turn. That's a mature relationship. It is not always fun, but it is very necessary.

SIMON: Mr. Lieberthal, thanks so much.

Mr. LIEBERTHAL: My pleasure, good to be with you.

SIMON: Ken Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thorton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.