By Mary Sanchez

What's the Chinese equivalent of gruel?

Just wondering what jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo's meal might have been the night his country's president was received in splendor at the White House.

It was surf n turf for Hu Jintao's state dinner, poached Maine lobster and dry-aged rib-eye. A very U.S.A. apple pie and ice cream was served for dessert.

No word on what Liu might have had that evening. Such frivolous inquires by a free press aren't exactly welcomed.

But the Chinese president's U.S. visit highlighted such contradictions.

Michelle Obama appeared radiant at the state dinner, in her red silk organza gown from the London fashion house of the late Alexander McQueen. Esteemed Asian-Americans were invited to schmooze. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, skater Michelle Kwan, and designer Vera Wang added to the glamour quotient. (One could also argue their presence showcased the accomplishments a free society can promise its most creative citizenry.)

Meanwhile, protesters gathered at the White House gates. Their intent was to decry the Communist country's egregious human rights abuses, including the detainment of Liu.

Barack Obama, also a Nobel prize laureate, will have to navigate this most tenuous U.S.-China relationship.

Set aside squabbles about the latest errant tweet from Sarah Palin, or any number of orchestrated-to-irritate rants from both sides of the political aisle.

These are the dealings that define presidents.

The Dalai Lama is probably better known to most Americans. But Liu's bravery is tied to a strong image of China's human rights abuses: Tiananmen Square. Liu is credited with negotiating the end to the standoff between students and the tanks, saving countless lives.

China is our No. 1 trade partner, with the second largest economy in the world. China's economy is still dwarfed by ours, but it's catching up fast. Partly of course, this is due to their undervalued currency, just one of the contentious subjects discussed during Hu's visit.

Yet increasingly, their children kick ours off the map when it comes to test-taking and rigorous academic study. Calming U.S. fears to this new reality, while gearing us up to meet it educationally, is just one challenge for Obama's White House.

The U.S. looks to China to press North Korea on nuclear proliferation, something Hu tepidly acknowledged during his trip. And as China expands its wealth and middle class, the U.S. needs greater access to its markets.

Honeywell, General Electric and Boeing were the big winners in export deals announced this go-round. Needless to say, future U.S.-China talks will not simply be about exchanges of cuddly pandas for U.S. zoos.

"China is a developing country with a huge population, and also a developing country in a crucial stage of reform," Hu admitted in one public exchange. "In this context, China still faces many challenges in economic and social development. And a lot still needs to be done in China, in terms of human rights."

This alone is considered a huge breakthrough, an indicator of how much distance there is to go.

He also understandably requested "the principle of noninterference in each other's internal affairs."

The two statements by Hu, even in translated to English form, sum up well the delicate challenge for Obama.

It also could be viewed as a taunting shadow of possibility the Nobel Peace Prize seemingly cast during Hu's visit.

Obama was awarded the prize in 2009, a year ahead of Liu.

Obama received his too early.

In contrast, Liu earned his. And this is not only due to Tiananmen Square. His story is the lifelong tale of one who presses, through non-violence, for continued reforms in his country. A writer, Liu helped craft one document, "Charter 08," outlining changes that his country could wisely undertake.

He was jailed for that transgression. Subversion was the charge.

So while Nobel laureate Liu awaits his release from prison, another, Obama, is challenged with earning his esteemed award.


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