A decorated tree topped with a Merry Christmas sign stood in a corner. A large red stocking was stuck on the refrigerator topped with cans of illy coffee. And at the long wooden table beneath the Christmasy snowflakes still hanging from the ceiling, professor Cui Liru held forth on China's relations with Pakistan and India.
"India's development is smoother than Pakistan's. India enjoys stronger status," said Cui. "Pakistan is confronted with a much more difficult situation inside and outside Pakistan, than India. I think it's understandable for China to help Pakistan tide over its difficulties."
Officially orchestrated visits to government venues in Beijing usually involve tours that begin and end no farther than a conference room or the lobby where we stand and take notes next to a large model of a new city being built.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministry took the media to one of its largest think-tanks, the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) launched in 1980 as Beijing embarked on its reform and opening-up policy. The address is so elite that the bus driver got lost in his search for 11 institutes home to 380 scholars studying global security on a single landscaped campus.
We were ushered straight to the western setting in the café and later allowed into two reading rooms with international titles including Cosmopolitan - and several books on caste politics in India.
The scholars said they were presenting individual opinions, not the views of the government on foreign policy. At the outset, the media was asked to raise questions on Russia. No hands went up and the Russia scholar beside me promptly left in relief. The question on India was raised last, but it got the longest though standard official response. The CICIR President Cui echoed official strategists who have said recently that China will not harm its relations with India while promoting China-Pakistan ties with stepped up military and economic aid and nuclear reactors.
"And China-India relations will not be developed at the expense of China-Pakistan relations," Cui added. "Maybe in future, India and Pakistan will understand China's policy."
For now, New Delhi is not convinced.