World leaders gather in Beijing

The sight of dozens of heads of state, among them the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, queuing to congratulate President Hu Jintao, appeared to put the usually stiff Communist Party boss at ease.


SPECIAL REPORT: The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games

BEIJING - 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 honour.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who riled China before his
arrival by criticising 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 favour 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

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.

Beefstake 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

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