In China, Biden pulls punches, not punch lines

BEIJING Fri Aug 19, 2011 9:00am EDT

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a discussion with U.S. and Chinese business leaders at Beijing Hotel in Beijing August 19, 2011. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden attends a discussion with U.S. and Chinese business leaders at Beijing Hotel in Beijing August 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Lintao Zhang/Pool

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BEIJING (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, in China on a five-day charm mission, has worked hard with his hosts to inject a little amity into the sometimes fractious relationship, pulling punches but not his punch lines.

On Thursday, China's vice president and likely leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, met Biden at the Great Hall of the People.

"Good to see you again," Xi said. "I know you are very busy with national affairs at home."

"You ARE national affairs," Biden told his counterpart from the United States' largest creditor.

After on a stroll up the red carpet, Biden found a familiar face during introductions to the Chinese delegation.

"Remember what I told you last time: if I had hair like yours I'd be president," the 68-year-old VP with a well-groomed but receding silver hairline said.

Pleasantries out of the way, Xi and Biden got down to real issues -- shoring up prospects for Sino-American relations and offering a dose of optimism about the U.S. economy.

Then it was time for lunch. But Biden was chicken when it came to having guts.

Eating at a tiny Beijing restaurant renowned for its fried liver and pig intestines, the vice president balked: "Noodles or dumplings."

That meal for five, which included the new U.S. ambassador to China Gary Locke and Biden's granddaughter, cost about 79 yuan ($12), and seemed to have struck the right chord with Chinese microbloggers.

By noon the next day tens of thousands had weighed in on the lunch, many admiring the careful choreography to show how wisely Americans spend their money. Lend away, China.

After a good meal, it was back to business at the Great Hall, where he met with the Chairman of China's National People's Congress, Wu Bangguo.

Biden apologized to members of the Chinese delegation who had to listen to him speak "again and again and again."

He did not, however, apologize to the media.

Wu reminisced about the two leaders' last meeting in D.C.

"I remember I said to you back then that your office was exquisite, but not very big," Wu said.

"Very diplomatic," Biden quipped.

More diplomatic, anyway, than the Georgetown Hoyas and China's Bayi Military Rockets basketball teams, who ended a "friendly" match that night across town, not with Biden-esque jokes off the cuff, but with fisticuffs.

Best to leave the diplomacy to the professionals, who know the value of a little self-deprecating office humor.

"I used to have an important job when I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee," Biden told Wu. "I had a big office, large staff. Then I became vice president."

Members of the press pool speculated that joke, at least, may have been lost in translation.

(Reporting by Michael Martina, editing Miral Fahmy)

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