A Prime Seat for Human Rights Watch Director at State Dinner

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Amid all the talk of dresses, menus and musical guests, it is easy to forget that state dinners are also occasions for quiet diplomacy.

Case in point for the dinner feting visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao was the extension of an invitation to Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, the international group that has been pressuring China to release jailed dissident and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.

"I understand that it was a symbolic invitation and I was happy to be used as a symbol," Roth said of his role at the event.

But the dinner turned out to have a substantive diplomatic aim in inviting Roth that went beyond message-sending through merely logging his name on the guest registry.

Roth was seated at a table in the State Dining Room with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Zhang Yesui, who had declined previous requests for a meeting with the human rights group.

"To the administration's credit, I was seated one seat away from him," recounted Roth, with only Mary Kaye Huntsman, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, between them. Ambassador Huntsman was also seated at their table, along with Jeffrey Bader, the chief China policy person at the National Security Council.

"In the end it was clearly designed so I could have a conversation with the second most important person in the room," said Roth. "He was the main person I wanted to talk to other than Hu and to my surprise I was seated almost near him.... So from my perspective it was an excellent opportunity to have a serious conversation with the Chinese government."

Roth also had "a fairly perfunctory conversation" with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his turn with him in the receiving line, he said, and told Hu he hoped to have "a more regular dialog with the [Chinese] government."

Roth and Zhang were able to have a "substantive conversation" about Liu, with Roth pressing the Chinese ambassador on why Liu was considered so dangerous a man that he needed to be locked up. A literary critic and political activist, Liu was convicted in a brief 2009 trial of "inciting subversion of state power" for publishing the Charter 08 petition calling for political reforms. He was sentenced to 11 years in state prison.

"The gist of his response," said Roth, "was that Liu was a much more dangerous man than I appreciated. So I challenged him and I tried to get him to explain that and he offered a somewhat shifting set of explanations."

"Even if some of his ideas are dumb, that doesn't make them crimes," Roth says he replied at one point.

"And he said, no no these are actually dangerous ideas and will undermine Chinese security," said Roth. The two "had a long back and forth and then had to move on because we weren't agreeing."

After that they had a longer conversation about the challenges facing China -- such as economic development -- and whether it would be possible for Human Rights Watch to have more regular conversations with the Chinese government, as it does with other governments around the world.

"He listened politely and said he would be in touch," said Roth.

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Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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