Hosting China’s President Takes A Delicate Touch

January 22, 2011

In a discussion with NPR’s Scott Simon, Kenneth Lieberthal talks about etiquette hurdles during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 U.S. state visit.

SCOTT SIMON, host: 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 superpower 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: [they] 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.

KENNETH LIEBERTHAL: 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.

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?

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 the 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.

Listen to the full interview at »