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Obama holding first China state dinner in 13 years

Feeling snubbed, slighted even, when he visited five years ago, Chinese President Hu Jintao is getting a do-over — plus the White House state dinner he sought back then but was denied.

Wednesday’s opulent, black-tie affair with President Barack Obama — the grandest of White House soirees — will mark the first such event in China’s honor in 13 years and could help smooth tensions between the world’s two largest economies.

Some big questions remain: Who will cook? Will first lady Michelle Obama’s gown have an Oriental flair? Can the White House avoid mistakes like the ones that marred the reception when a protocol-conscious Hu arrived for an April 2006 summit?

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

President Barack Obama meets with China's President Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the G-20

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 Hu with a state dinner.

But then Hu’s pomp-filled welcome ceremony on the South Lawn, which included a military honor guard and a 21-gun salute, was spoiled when a woman protesting China’s treatment of the banned Falun Gong religious movement began shouting during his remarks.

Bush apologized after he and Hu went into the Oval Office.

Compounding the insult, a White House announcer called China the “Republic of China.” That’s the formal name for Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its territory.

Wednesday’s affair will return the hospitality that Obama was shown at a state dinner in Beijing on his November 2009 visit.

A personal relationship between the two leaders is important for cooperation on several pressing issues in the time left on both of their terms in office, Asia watchers say. The visit is probably the last to Washington as president for Hu, a hydroelectric engineer who has ruled since 2002. He is expected to relinquish his leadership of the Communist Party next year and the presidency the year after.

The only way you can move policy is at the very top, and it requires a personal connection,” said Victor Cha, director of Asian affairs on the National Security Council in the Bush White House. “Maybe this visit will be an opportunity to create some of that.

Hu is getting plenty of face time with Obama, including a second dinner. The more private meal at the White House on Tuesday after Hu lands in Washington also will include Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, national security adviser Tom Donilon and aides to Hu.

Wednesday’s schedule calls for the arrival ceremony, a one-on-one meeting between Obama and Hu, an expanded meeting that includes aides, a news conference and, finally, dinner.

It will be Obama’s third state dinner, following those for India in 2008 and Mexico last year.

For each dinner, Mrs. Obama — who is responsible for planning the events with the White House social secretary — recruited a guest chef to help prepare the meal. But there was no word on who might cook for Hu.

In fact, in keeping with its usual practice, the White House hasn’t released any details about the menu, the guest list, the decor, where dinner will be served or what Mrs. Obama will wear and doesn’t plan to until a few hours before Wednesday’s event is scheduled to begin.

On Monday, workers began preparing the South Lawn for the arrival ceremony, and U.S. and Chinese flags flapped in the breeze on Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to the Capitol.

President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed President Jiang Zemin and his wife, Madame Wang Yeping, in October 1997, serving chilled lobster in tarragon sauce, pepper-crusted Oregon beef and whipped Yukon Gold potatoes to more than 230 guests seated elbow-to-elbow in the East Room. They ate on tableware from the Eisenhower and FDR administrations laid out on gold damask tablecloths.

Dinner tickets were highly sought and the lucky holders pointed to one of Clinton’s chief aims: access to China’s consumer market of more than 1 billion people. The guest list included CEOs from Xerox, PepsiCo, Walt Disney Co. and General Motors Corp.

The National Symphony Orchestra provided after-dinner entertainment that included the American classics “An American in Paris” by George Gershwin and “Stars and Stripes Forever” by John Philip Sousa.

White House officials suggested at the time that Jiang might be tempted to get up on stage. At a dinner the year before in the Philippines, he surprised his host by singing “Love Me Tender” and “Swanee River.”

Could Hu succumb to similar temptation? He was known as an avid ballroom dancer in college.

The Clintons had anticipated a level of interest in the dinner that would exceed the ability of the White House to comfortably accommodate its guests. Planners offered to hold it outside in a tent, but Jiang’s representatives held out for indoors.

Jiang had been miffed years earlier when Clinton refused him an official visit and insisted on meeting at New York’s Lincoln Center instead.

This time, China is getting . everything that it wants in terms of the symbols of a visit,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who focuses on China.

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