A Visit to the New Forbidden City

February 24, 2009
Secretary Clinton Meets With Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao

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.



Linda S.
Nevada, USA
February 24, 2009

Linda S. in Nevada writes:

Wow...lucky you!

Michigan, USA
February 24, 2009

Andrea in Michigan writes:

Thank-you for the work you do and for sharing with us.

Arizona, USA
February 24, 2009

Gretchen in Arizona writes:

Very cool! Thanks for sharing.

New Jersey, USA
February 24, 2009

Rosemary in New Jersey writes:

Well, thank you Alexander, for being superfluous -- although this blog post is not. I was waiting for the next installment about China on Dipnote. I think all of the embassy personnel did a fabulous job on this trip, and I am happy to see that everything went smoothly. We really appreciated all these posts. It's nice to get the news and details from the field.

Thanks for taking care of our Mme. Secretary.

February 25, 2009

Zaid in Georgia writes:

I don't understand, you throw horrible invective at Chavez and yet will gleefully visit a country with a far worse human rights record?

February 25, 2009

Xaioming in China writes:



Connecticut, USA
February 25, 2009

Terry in Connecticut writes:

I also say bravo on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Asian trip. She looked great at the State of the Union Address Tuesday night.

California, USA
February 25, 2009

Wendy in California writes:

Dear Mr.McLaren,

Thank you so much for this glimpse behind the scenes. For those of us who will never be lucky enough to get to China least of all in such an essential & superfluous capacity, it is a treat to be set in the place with the dragons and murals and peaceful trees and lakes. Purple Light Pavilion, ahh.

I remain staggered by all the planning that went into a monumental trip like this transpacific journey of SoS Hillary & Team. Standing ovations to all involved, especially when you proved superfluous.

Syrian P.
February 25, 2009

SNP in Syria writes:

So basically according to the narrative of this post the illiterate Comis rice farmers revolted against nobility rule out of the forbidden city, and rather than live and be treated in noble dignity, they choose Mao communist ways of living under the rule of State Security and Communist Politburo royalties. Now they look from their village straw houses and shanty cardboard rat holes unto the New Communist and Socialist Royals that are isolated from the slaved population in another forbidden city that is even more grandiose and luxurious than the ancient one. Enjoy the deprivation and degradation comrades. Join others who listened to the same school graduate of revolutionary deceivers of the 20th century, from Bolsheviks to Baathists to Mullaists.

New Jersey, USA
February 25, 2009

Dave in New Jersey writes:

Good luck


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