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For Chinese, state dinner makes a statement

Should salve unhappiness over ‘06 visit

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When Hu Jintao makes what is likely his final trip to Washington as China's president, he will get an honor he desperately wanted but was denied during his first visit nearly five years ago: a White House state dinner.

Symbolism and protocol are very important to the Chinese, and the opulence of Wednesday's black-tie affair with President Obama should be plenty satisfying for Mr. Hu, a 67-year-old hydroelectric engineer who has ruled the country since 2002. That could help the relationship between the leaders of the world's two largest economies.

A grand soiree is in the works, but some big questions remain. Will a celebrity chef do the cooking? Will first lady Michelle Obama's gown have an Asian flair? Will the Obamas try to turn Mr. Hu on to American pop culture with their choice of entertainment?

Mrs. Obama, White House social secretary Julianna Smoot and other staffers deeply immersed in pulling off the administration's third state dinner hope to avoid repeating the slights, both perceived and real, that marred the Chinese president's reception for an April 2006 visit with President George W. Bush.

For starters, Mr. Hu was unhappy that Mr. Bush opted for lunch over a state dinner.

Mr. Bush held few state dinners as president, preferring workmanlike visits with foreign leaders over eating meals in a tuxedo. He also was sensitive to concerns in the U.S. about human rights in China and was reluctant to be seen as going all out for Mr. Hu with a state dinner.

Mr. Hu did get a pomp-filled arrival ceremony on the South Lawn, including a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute. But the reception was spoiled when a woman protesting China's treatment of the banned Falun Gong religious movement began shouting during his remarks.

Mr. Bush personally apologized after they had retreated to the Oval Office.

Wednesday's affair will return the hospitality that Mr. Obama was shown at a state dinner in Beijing when he visited in November 2009.

A personal relationship between the two leaders is important, Asia watchers say. Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu will have at least two more years to work together; Mr. Hu is expected to step down from the presidency next year.

"It's such a big relationship. It's like two aircraft carriers," said Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs in the Bush White House. "The only way you can move policy is at the very top, and it requires a personal connection."

Mr. Cha said a personal rapport seems lacking between the two leaders, who have met seven times in the past two years.

Mr. Hu is actually getting two dinners with Mr. Obama.

A small private dinner at the White House was on tap after Mr. Hu's arrival in Washington on Tuesday, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and some Hu aides.

The last White House state dinner for China was 13 years ago, when President and Mrs. Clinton welcomed President Jiang Zemin and his wife, Madame Wang Yeping, in October 1997.

Mr. Jiang, Mr. Hu's predecessor, had been miffed years earlier when Mr. Clinton refused him an official visit and insisted that they meet at New York's Lincoln Center instead.

"The protocol is very, very important to the Chinese," said Bonnie Glaser, who studies China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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