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When U.S. Diplomats Visit China, Meal Choices Are About More Than Taste Buds

Beijing beer made with American hops, to highlight the trade relationship between the two countries. Tibetan food, to send a human rights message. Mushrooms with possible hallucinogenic properties, just because they taste good.

Where, what and how American dignitaries eat when they visit China is a serious matter. Choices of restaurants and dishes are rife with opportunities for geopolitical symbolism, as well as controversy and mockery. Chopstick skills — or a lack thereof — can be a sign of cultural competence or illiteracy.

An exorbitantly expensive meal can make an official look out of touch. Too cheap or informal, and you risk appearing undignified. Authenticity, history, cooking technique and taste can all affect the perception of a meal choice.

When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken started a trip through China on Wednesday, part of the Biden administration’s efforts to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, some on Chinese social media wondered whether he would have time on his visit to stop and try some of the city’s famous xiaolongbao (soup dumplings).

One recommendation that he do so came with something of a political warning: “Eating xiaolongbao is just like handling international relations,” a commentator wrote on Weibo. “If your attention slips even a little, you’ll burn your mouth.”

Mr. Blinken did in fact visit a renowned soup dumpling restaurant that night. It’s unclear how much he considered the symbolism of his dumplings, but by indulging in a traditional popular snack, and by attending a basketball game, the optics suggested there was a more cordial spirit than on the trip he made last year, soon after a Chinese spy balloon drifting across the United States had heightened tensions.

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