The Cable

Inside the U.S.-China Valentine’s Day lunch

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden hosted a star-studded lunch at the State Department Tuesday in honor of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, with a Valentine's Day theme to boot.

The tables were adorned with red rose bouquets and the menu featured Chinese-American fusion creations by chef Ming Tsai, including a roasted sweet potato soup with crispy duck confit roulade, soy marinated Alaskan butterfish, and "eight treasured rice packet" with dried fruit and pork sausage. Dessert was a flourless bittersweet chocolate cake topped with cardamom ice cream.

In addition to Clinton and Biden, the roster of former and current officials and celebrities in attendance included Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brezinksi, Thomas Friedman, Chris Hill, Chas Freeman, Alan Greenspan, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Dianne Fienstein (D-CA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Bob Corker (R-TN). State Department officials at the event included Wendy Sherman, Bob Hormats, Kurt Campbell, and many others.

Your humble Cable guy's table included Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, and State Department counselor Harold Koh.

Clinton opened up the event by alluding to the holiday theme.

"Because we so highly value our relationship and you're here on what we call Valentine's Day, which is a time that is for love but also friendship, and we are so delighted that we could invite many American friends who know China, work in China, have relations in China, here to this lunch honoring you," she said.

Biden joked about Xi's visit Wednesday to Iowa, where the future Chinese leader had spent some time living with a homestay family in the 1980's.

"Your visit to Iowa will ensure you more delegates than I received there when I ran for president," Biden joked. "And Lindsey Graham is happy that you didn't show up there in January, or you might have won the GOP primary as well."

Biden then got serious and talked about how the U.S.-China relationship "is literally going to help shape the 21st century."

He mentioned China's deteriorating record on human rights and said, "We see our advocacy of human rights as a fundamental part of our foreign policy and we see human rights as a key to the prosperity of all societies."

"We have been clear about our concern over the areas in our perspective where conditions in China have deteriorated and the plight of several individuals," Biden said, though he did not mention any dissidents by name. "We appreciate your response."

In his own speech, Xi said touted China's human rights record and promised that his country would continue to focus on the personal aspirations of its people. He did not mention any specific human rights achievements, however.

"China has made tremendous and well recognized achievements in human rights over 30 years since opening up," said Xi. ""The Chinese government will always put people's interest first and take seriously people's aspirations and demands."

He alluded to a "new and important consensus" achieved during his trip, without elaborating.

The mood in the room was friendly and many attendees who had interacted with Xi personally said that he was more personable and somewhat less guarded than his boss Hu Jintao. They said that Xi was being very careful to stay on script and not make any mistakes, but that they were cautiously optimistic the visit would establish some rapport between Xi and his high-level U.S. interlocutors.

The lunch began more than an hour late because Xi's previous meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, which had been scheduled for 45 minutes, lasted almost an hour and a half. Biden has met Xi before and traveled to China late last year as the latter's guest, but today was the first meeting between Obama and Xi.

In Obama's remarks after the meeting, he nodded to the issue of human rights when he said, "[W]e will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."

Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, who met with Biden before the visit, was not impressed with the back and forth on the issue and wrote that the language the administration used was weaker than he would have liked.

"The Obama team didn't even publicly mention Chinese dissidents by name, let alone meet with them before the Xi Jinping visit. Bad signal," Roth tweeted. "The Obama team already wasn't doing much for human rights in #China. Now it's not even saying much."

Biden and Xi also met this morning, and Xi met with some senior former officials last night for dinner at his hotel in Woodley Park. Tonight, Xi eats at Biden's residence before he takes off for Iowa and then Los Angeles, where we're told he will take in a Lakers game.

Xi made the final toast at Tuesday's lunch.

"I now propose a toast to the health of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to the remarkable development of U.S.-.China relations in the last 40 years and to even better relations in the next 40 years," he said.

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