Chinese ambassador will visit Peoria, but will not speak publicly

Scott Hilyard

Against a backdrop of unrest in Tibet and protests accompanying the worldwide tour of the Beijing Olympic torch — two issues that have placed China in an unflattering global spotlight this week — the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, Zhou Wenzhong, is visiting Peoria Friday.

But unless you are an employee of Caterpillar Inc., a member of the Rotary Club of Peoria or an invited guest of a member, you might not notice.

"It’s a closed meeting," said Melody Roberts, executive director of the Rotary Club of Peoria. "(Rotary) is not a real political group and we’re not equipped to handle the media or anyone else but the members and their guests."

Wenzhong is coming to Peoria as a guest of Caterpillar.

"We do business with China," said Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan. "This visit is related to our overall business relationship with the ambassador’s country."

Unless you count his lunch speech to Rotarians at 11:45 a.m. at the Hotel Pere Marquette as a public appearance, there are no others planned. Club members will not be allowed to ask questions of the speaker as they commonly do at their weekly meetings.

It was unclear Thursday from where the concept originated — China, the United States, Caterpillar or the Rotary Club of Peoria — to keep reporters and the general public away from Wenzhong or to even welcome access to his speech from the back of the room at the Pere Marquette.

"It was kind of a decision made jointly," Roberts said.

No one was obligated to open up the speech to the public that will be given to a private club in a privately rented room.

The speech was arranged by a Rotarian who is also a Caterpillar executive, Roberts said. He was scheduled to speak as part of a cultural exchange with Caterpillar and is not expected to address — in any way — the Olympic torch, Tibet, or any other recent negative story that has appeared in the American press.

"I would be totally shocked if he spoke about the current situation," Roberts said.

Dugan said it was not unusual for Caterpillar to privately host a high-profile politician, government official or business executive.

"That happens all the time," he said.

It’s not as though the ambassador couldn’t field a question or two on a controversial topic or that he hasn’t heard them before. Wenzhong, who has been the ambassador to the United States for three years, is a frequent lecturer and source for reporters on issues about China. For instance, he spoke to National Public Radio on March 27 about the riots in Tibet and recently to the National Press Club about China’s attempt to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases.

"We’re fortunate to get a guest like this and it’s just not a political visit to the Rotary Club," Roberts said. "We’re doing it this way as a courtesy to a guest. That’s all."

Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or at