BEIJING (Reuters) - With more than 80 state leaders and royals in Beijing to attend Friday’s opening of the Olympic Games, trying to work out who would sit where at a welcome lunch hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao could have been a problem. And trying to work out what to feed them could have presented as many issues as trying to ensure nobody sat next to a political rival, or even a state enemy.
Protocol officials appeared to settle on a seating plan that reflected China’s hopes of using the Games to win over often wary world powers while reflecting the country’s focus on making Asian friends.
In the run-up to the Games, China has weathered criticism from Western leaders over human rights and Tibet. But the sight of them and dozens of other leaders queuing to congratulate Hu appeared to put the usually stiff Communist Party boss at ease.
On the top table — one of nine in a cavernous function room in the Great Hall of the People — sat Hu, seated next to his wife on one side and International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge on the other as guest of honor.
U.S. President George W. Bush, who riled China before his arrival by criticizing its rights record, also sat next to Rogge, and could be seen chatting amiably to Hu before lunch started, with the help of an interpreter.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a strong friend of China, also sat at the top table — but so did Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whose countries have had testy ties with China.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, on the next table over, was seated beside Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in a sign of unusual favor to the Mandarin-speaking Australian.
Vietnam President Nguyen Minh Triet was on Wen’s other side, the border war of a few decades ago and lingering mistrust apparently forgotten for the day.
Taiwan’s Lien Chan, honorary head of the island’s ruling Kuomintang, which once ruled all of China, sat at the table below Hu’s, with Jia Qinglin, the Chinese Communist Party’s fourth-ranked leader. Lien was applauded briefly on his arrival.
Ties have warmed considerably between China and the island it claims as its own since Ma Ying-jeou won the presidency earlier this year on a pledge of better ties with Beijing. The two have been ruled separately since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949.
The menu? Nothing controversial, and no pork, in deference to Muslim and Jewish guests such as the Malaysian king and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
To start, lantern-shaped delicacies, followed by pine mushroom chicken soup in a white gourd.
Beefsteak wrapped in a lotus leaf, seasonal greens in a bird’s nest — surely a reference to the main Olympic Bird’s Nest stadium — and Peking duck followed, along with cod in soy sauce.
Additional reporting by David Schlesinger; Editing by Nick Macfie