President who? Chinese leader raises barely a stir

He is one of the most powerful men in the world, but the arrival of Chinese leader Xi Jinping yesterday for his first summit with President Barack Obama was not causing much of a stir among the locals in the sleepy desert town of Palm Springs.

Nestled beneath the San Jacinto mountains in California's cactus-strewn Coachella Valley, life moves at a slower pace - and the intricacies of Sino-American relations, which are about to play out at a nearby ranch, seem of little concern.

Along the town's pristine tree-lined boulevards, named after the "Rat Pack" Hollywood stars who once colonised the area, the mention of Chinese President Xi Jinping's name draws blank stares from locals, while visitors seem more interested in the 8m statue of Marilyn Monroe on the main road.

The Chinese leader is reputedly a fan of Hollywood movies, especially the war epic Saving Private Ryan. So he may be pleased to know that some Palm Springs residents thought he might be an actor.

After being shown a picture of him, Melanie Locicero, 20, said: "Have you seen Rush Hour 3? There's a Chinese prime minister guy in it and he looks like him. That's who I thought it was."

Xi would probably have been less delighted when someone else confidently named him as Kim Il Sung, adding: "Isn't he the Dad of that Kim guy in North Korea who's trying to start all the wars?"

One woman identified a picture of Xi's wife, the famous Chinese singer Peng Liyuan, as Miss Japan.

Standing in the shadow of Marilyn's voluminous skirts, an elderly man called Chuck did recognise the Chinese President, but wished he hadn't come to Palm Springs. "He's the one that makes all this junk we're throwing away. China's flooding this country with stuff."

But he thought Xi and Obama would get on well, adding: "It's communism over there and communism over here, what's the difference?"

If they were looking for a more receptive welcome, China's first couple might have better luck at a Palm Springs' Chinese restaurant, the Asian Bistro, where waitress Jane Zou, 25, who was born in Sichuan, recognised their photographs immediately. "We're hoping he comes down our road. He could come into our restaurant, we do very good spicy seafood, and curry."

Sadly, Xi is unlikely to pop in as he will be staying a few kilometres outside town behind the pink walls of Sunnylands, an 80ha ranch at the junction of Bob Hope Drive and Frank Sinatra Drive.

Two hundred rooms have been booked out for his entourage at the Palm Springs Hilton.

It is also Obama's first visit to Sunnylands, but it may not be his last. The estate, which was described by one visitor as a "magical kingdom", is pushing itself as a "Camp David of the West" which could become a regular venue for high-level summits involving Pacific Rim and South American leaders.

Its main attraction is as an alternative to the stifling political pressures of Washington.

White House officials hope the "shirtsleeves" atmosphere will allow Obama and Xi to develop a genuine understanding and friendship. Their meetings will be unstructured, open-ended, and only a few aides will be present.

Officials have talked of the importance of developing a personal relationship to avoid the "so-called historic inevitability of conflict" between the two nations.

Richard Kite, mayor of the nearby town of Rancho Mirage, who has visited Sunnylands, said: "They can really enjoy the desert. There's a different lifestyle here and you can really bring people together in a leisurely manner. It's an entirely different atmosphere to Beijing or Washington."

Sunnylands has long been a playground for presidents on holiday, but less often a business setting. Ronald Reagan spent no less than 18 New Year's Eves there.

A disgraced Richard Nixon was en route to the ranch when he learned that Gerald Ford had pardoned him over Watergate. At the time, Nixon wrote in the visitors' book: "When you're down, you find out who your real friends are ..."

One of those friends was the ranch's founder Walter Annenberg, who made billions from his magazines TV Guide and Seventeen. Nixon had appointed him Ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1969.

Sinatra married Barbara Marx there in 1976, and Ginger Rogers used to dance after dinner.

When Queen Elizabeth came for lunch in 1983, he said: "We want to give her a chance to see how ordinary Americans live."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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