About the Author: Alexander McLaren serves as a Public Diplomacy Officer at U.S. Embassy Beijing.
Most Americans are familiar with images of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, but few would even recognize the name Zhong Nan Hai, much less know it is the seat of government for the People’s Republic of China. A former imperial enclave just to the west of the Forbidden City, Zhong Nan Hai houses most of the Chinese leadership and the offices of the State Council and the Communist Party. It’s an odd mix of grey brick office buildings and Qing Dynasty palaces set on the shores of two artificial lakes. Access is tightly controlled; there are no tours nor tourists taking pictures. You could drive right by and not even notice it. On Saturday, February 21, as part of Secretary Clinton’s visit to Beijing, I got to go in.
I arrived at the compound an hour before the Secretary did to meet our counterparts from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our job was to escort the press to the photo op of Secretary Clinton’s meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. Once all Chinese, U.S., and third-country press had arrived and been screened by Chinese security, there was nothing to do but stand in the cold waiting for the Secretary’s motorcade. Still, there was a lot to admire as we waited since the meeting was to be held in the “Purple Light Pavilion,” a Qing Dynasty building decorated with dragons and murals. The trees and lake surrounding us made the setting very peaceful.
Then Secretary Clinton arrived, and the press quickly snapped photos as she shook hands with Premier Wen. We followed them into the small meeting room to listen to the first five minutes of their conversation before my Chinese counterparts and I eased the press outside. We then got the U.S. press pool onto a bus to go photograph the next big meeting.
What was my role? In a major visit, everything is timed down to the last minute. Any number of things can go wrong. Access lists don’t always make it to the right people, which could spell disaster given tightly controlled Chinese government buildings. There might be a last minute change of plans. It’s always important to have American officers who speak Chinese on hand to smooth over problems and keep things running. My goal is to be completely superfluous – which means that all has gone well. But if things go wrong, my presence can make all the difference. As it happens, this time everything went fine. My most important duty was delivering a backpack that one of the traveling press had left on the bus.
Here’s hoping it all goes that smoothly every time.