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MAYOR IN EAST ASIA

Getting the `Grade A Treatment' -- and 30 Minutes With Kissinger

October 11, 2006|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — What's a trip to the capital of China without running into Henry Kissinger?

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in the midst of a 16-day trade mission to East Asia, has been staying in the same hotel as the former secretary of State -- the St. Regis in Beijing's embassy district. A businessman in the mayors' delegation who has a connection to Kissinger arranged a meeting between the two.

Kissinger received Villaraigosa for 30 minutes in his suite Monday evening. The guest list was short. It included City Councilman Jack Weiss and former Ambassador to China J. Stapleton Roy.

Villaraigosa is accustomed to people fawning over him. In Kissinger, an architect of former President Richard M. Nixon's historic opening to China, he found someone with bigger shoes. And to his credit, he wasn't afraid to admit it.

"I'm pinching my cheek," he said. "He gave me so much time."

The mayor asked Kissinger about the leadership upheaval underway in China and the political maelstrom set off Sunday by North Korea's test of a nuclear weapon. Kissinger, in turn, sought Villaraigosa's predictions on the upcoming midterm congressional elections in the United States.

The two also talked about Villaraigosa's trip to China, South Korea and Japan, and the mayor tapped Kissinger for advice on how a "municipal leader" should conduct himself in a time of crisis such as the one in North Korea. The mayor didn't offer details about Kissinger's response other than to say that they agreed the world should condemn the North Koreans.

This morning, Villaraigosa was eating breakfast in the St. Regis' restaurant when Kissinger strode by, a dignified figure wearing his ubiquitous black glasses and a dark suit.

I happened to be there, too, eating breakfast near Villaraigosa. And I wanted to know what Kissinger thought about the mayor.

In his patient, baritone voice, he said: "I think he's getting the Grade A treatment, and I've been here 40 times and I know what the Grade A treatment" is like -- an apparent reference to the meetings Villaraigosa has secured with high-ranking government officials in tourism and foreign affairs.

Kissinger said he enjoyed meeting Villaraigosa, the impromptu get-together still fresh in everyone's minds. As that brief session drew to a close the other night, a photographer for Villaraigosa was called in to snap some photos.

And then Kissinger asked if he could get copies.

In China, Villaraigosa is traveling in style, staying at some of the finest hotels. The streets outside are a different world from the marble bathrooms and concierge service of the St. Regis. Beijing's streets are a lesson in organized madness, with jam-packed thoroughfares and hidden nooks where men play cards or sell vegetables or cellphones laid out on sidewalks.

Later Tuesday, Villaraigosa received a standing ovation at the Experimental High School in Beijing -- and that was before he uttered a word.

Villaraigosa bowed and offered greetings in Chinese -- "nee-ha" -- as he made his way toward the auditorium stage where a giant blue backdrop read: "Talent and Success -- Lecture by Antonio R. Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles."

This was no ordinary public high school, but one of the best in Beijing, a campus where students speak English almost as easily as Chinese, where graduates head to the finest universities in China and to the Ivy League in the United States.

This is the school where Community Party founder Mao Tse-tung sent two daughters, school officials said.

Al Gore has visited. So has Bill Gates. And now Villaraigosa.

His speech, translated painstakingly into Chinese, went on for about 20 minutes, long enough for some students and teachers to nod off or correct homework at their seats. But students said they were thrilled, and a little surprised, by their visitor.

"In my mind, I [thought] he's a white man," said Wei Qian, 16. "He's not a white man. He's very gentle. When he shakes my hand, he shakes very powerful."

Principal Yuan Aijun showered Villaraigosa with praise.

"We are feeling very proud that the mayor decided to make the Experimental School his first option to learn about Chinese education," she told the audience while introducing him.

The mayor's group shifts today to Tianjin, the biggest port in the north of China and the nation's third-largest city.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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