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Lloyd Neighbors – Shanghai

In Shanghai, in addition to handling the APEC events, we also had to help arrange a bilateral press conference between George W. Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Jiang was leader of the Shanghai faction in Chinese politics, and was delighted to host President Bush on his home turf. We had to organize a press conference for the two principals at an open- air site, just outside the walls of a beautiful Chinese guesthouse.

That was difficult enough. Putin proved more of a problem. As a Pacific Basin country, Russia has been an APEC member since 1998. Russian President Vladimir Putin was attending the summit, and we were tasked with doing the logistics for a press conference between Putin and George W. Bush.

The first matter of business in preparing for a presidential press conference is to find a good site, one that is convenient for the press but that tells a visual story about where the event is taking place. The White House Advance is very particular about the choice of venues.

We looked at a lot of different sites, looked at, for instance, the Grand Ballroom in the Peace Hotel on the Bund — the fabled Shanghai waterfront. It’s a beautiful old art deco building, very nice. It was a little shabbier in those days than it is now, but still an elegant place. So we thought about having it there.

The ballroom on the top floor would have been a wonderful site, a place still echoing with the sound of 1930s jazz, the voice of Noel Coward — who wrote Private Lives while ensconced at the Peace — and the ghosts of merry dancers long gone.

But there are only two tiny elevators that go up to the twelfth floor. And you have 300 journalists who are going to want to come to this event — plus a myriad of security people and all the hangers – on. From a security standpoint this would not work. We just couldn’t get the people up and down the building. So we looked some more.

Finally, the White House decided that the best place to have the event was at the Portman Hotel, where the President would be staying. The Portman had a huge, beautiful atrium with plenty of room for crowds and convenient for the president to come down from his hotel suite for the press conference. Only one problem: the atrium looked like any hotel site in any place in the world. Nothing said “China.”

And if you’re going to have a press conference in Shanghai, you want it to look like China. You want something visually to say, “Boy, we are in China now, and the President is hard at work establishing our relationship with the Chinese and with the Russians at the same time.”

So how were we going to resolve this problem? We called the Shanghai Film Studio and asked them to build a movie set at the Portman that would without a doubt say “China.”

This was with just 24 hours’ notice. So the studio builds this set that looks like a Chinese imperial palace. And they bring it in to the Portman at 4:00 in the morning, driving this huge truck with all the set materials into a highly secure area, through a cordon of guards and fences around the president’s hotel.

Trying to get this shipment at 4:00 in the morning through security was just a filthy task. But we did it, and it looked like an imperial palace in the Land of Oz. It was an imposing structure, vermillion walls with gold trim. It did look like we were in China, a China of the Boxer Rebellion days, perhaps.

At any rate, the set does work and the two presidents give their press conference for 20 minutes, maybe 30 at most. And the set cost us $13,000 to build. But that’s chicken feed compared to what is spent on a presidential visit. Six months later President Bush visited Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo. From what I heard, the cost of that visit to the three countries for about one week was $50 million.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (adst.org)

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