Welcoming President Hu

Posted: Apr 21, 2006 10:05 PM
We read of the protocols that confronted President Bush, even as they vexed President Hu Jintao. We safely assume that most of the questions were explored in private conversations between ambassadors, brought in for special coaching. A point was leaked/surmised to the effect that there was concern in Peking over the failure of President Bush to lay on a formal banquet, of the kind one associates with state visits.

Perhaps the Chinese protocol expert was resourceful enough to advise the Chinese Foreign Office of a very simple fact, namely, that President Bush does not like state dinners. The president had to face up to derivative complications, namely that sparing himself a state dinner required him otherwise to put on the dog, and one has to assume that President Hu took in the Byzantine meaning of it all.

The Internet vouchsafes a succinct guide to protocol in dealing with Chinese visitors. Do not mention "Taiwan" except in such a context as would suggest that you were talking about a province, as integral to China as, well, Tennessee is to the United States. Do not be surprised if the Chinese refer to gentlemen and ladies. Mr. Bush was warned not to stick Mr. Hu's calling card in his back pocket, and not to gesture with the fingers alone; the whole hand should be used to give expression to one's thoughts -- which brings to mind the warning that a Chinese nod does not necessarily mean "yes."

It would probably have been a good idea for Mr. Bush to ignore any protocolary advice that got in the way of his natural modes of expression, which are very American, which means very wholesome. Extraordinary precautions can lead to excesses. I learned once from a traveling companion in the U.S. Information Agency that his mission on this trip to Thailand was to advise the court that the official gift by Vice President Spiro Agnew, whose state visit was imminent, was not to be taken as a measure of the magnitude of American devotion and awe for the Siamese throne. The USIA official needed to explain that Congress sets a limit on the cost of presidential alms to foreign princes.

There was the further complication, the need to advise Bangkok that an ancient protocol simply had to be violated. It held that no human head could in any situation be higher off the ground than that of the Thai king. But the television camera recording the meeting of our vice president and the king would simply have to be operated by a cameraman sitting on a tree limb, or else the great meeting would never be seen in the United States. Permission was granted, but the larger point of it, surely, is that permission would no longer need to be solicited, given our shrinking globe, which eases, day by day, the stiffness of many ancient protocols.

Problems of the size of Taiwan are best handled by common agreement to ignore them. Sometimes they cannot be ignored, as when President Carter suddenly kicked out the Taiwanese ambassador and recognized Peking in 1979. It became necessary to come up with a device to focus on the continuing U.S. pledge to secure the independence of Taiwan, which was accomplished not through devious diplomatic lingo, but through the affirmation of the Taiwan Relations Act. That was over a quarter of a century ago, and Taiwan lives on.

Protocol obviously prohibits such an exchange as would delight the legions who care about the objectives of diplomacy, one such, surely, being the encouragement of freedom in modern China. President Bush correctly pleaded for this, and there was the disruption by the bold Chinese lady.

General Secretary Khrushchev got drunk one night when President Eisenhower was hosting him at Camp David in 1959, and Ike learned a great deal. One can imagine such an exchange today. "Mr. Hu, why does your government go on as it does every now and then on the communist business? You're no more a communist than I am. Nobody in your country cares about Karl Marx, or is guided by his stuff ... Oh well, forget it. We'll go along with your act, if that's what you want us to do, but before I forget, leave Taiwan alone, OK?"

The interpreters nod, and one observer thinks he sees one of them winking.