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Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
Michael Lozada
Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
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Iowa Welcomes Chinese Leader Xi

By Liyan Chen

Although located in the heartland of America, Iowa is not a frequent destination for international political leaders. The latest prominent visitor, Pope John Paul II, visited Iowa in 1979. Twenty years before that, the former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev toured Sukup, a manufacturing company in Sheffield, Iowa. Both of these previous visits put Iowa in the spotlight.

It was no different this time as Iowa welcomed the future leader of the world’s second biggest economy. Xi Jinping, the Vice President of People’s Republic of China, arrived in Iowa on Wednesday, February 15, for a two-day visit. After 27 years, Xi returned to Iowa and his old friends.

The tightly scheduled trip started at the Sarah Lande’s house in Muscatine on the late afternoon on the 15th. It ended with a farm tour on the next day. In between, Xi attended a state dinner hosted by Iowa’s Governor Terry Branstad and participated in the first U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium.

Since Mr. Xi is widely believed to replace the current President Hu Jintao this fall, his trip to the U.S. attracted international attention, as if it were a state visit.

Iowa was the second stop of his short stay in the U.S. He visited the White House before his arrival to Iowa, and then stayed in Los Angeles.

Muscatine Nostalgia

Not many people understood why Xi chose Iowa when the news was first announced. However, the connection between Xi and Iowa started in 1983.

It was in 1983 that Iowa signed a sister state agreement with Hebei Province, where Xi was only a local political leader of Zhengding County. China began its economic reforms in the early 1980s and as a result many Chinese political leaders visited the U.S. to learn about advances in technology and industry.

Xi was one of these leaders and he led an agricultural delegation to Iowa in May 1985. It was during this first visit that he met Sarah Lande.

“In 1984, our former governor Bob Ray, led a ‘friendship force’ trip to China, and I was on that trip. …Then Hebei said they would like an agricultural delegation to come,” said Lande. Lande was a member of the Iowa Sister States Friendship Committee in charge of building relations with China.

Xi’s first trip to the U.S. focused solely on Iowa. His Muscatine visit revolved around attending community events, including picnics, farm visits and factory tours.

“He was treated like every one of us,” Lande recalled, adding that Xi had pork chops, potato salad and hotdogs with Muscatine residents.

Xi even lived with a local family. Hosted by the Dvorak family, he stayed in their son’s room.

“Imagine how he was surrounded by the Star Trek posters,” Lande added.

Joan Axel, a local attorney and another volunteer for “Friendship Committee,” said Xi had “a good style” of leadership. “He was very curious and willing to ask questions.”

Other local residents enjoyed their interactions with Xi. They spoke highly of his character and leadership.

Doyle Tubandt, a project engineer at the Muscatine Food Corp. in 1985, gave Xi’s delegation a tour when they visited his company. He remembered that they were very interested in agriculture and asked a lot of questions, despite the language barrier.

He described his “aha moment” with Xi: “There was only one translator and we had a lot of fun translating technical terms. … There was lots of hand gesturing and trying to explain things. Actually I drew diagrams outside in the dirt, trying to show how things work.”

The delegation finally understood and smiled at Tubandt.

“They were genuine, courteous, and very respectful,” Tubandt said.

Xi’s visit was Tubandt’s first interaction with Chinese people, and he received a tin of tea as a gift.

“People are truly the same worldwide, I really believe that,” he said.

Iowa “Tea Time”

Xi’s trip back to Muscatine in February broke the day-to-day calmness of this small river town.

News spread in late January and according to Lande, “everyone [was] very excited about his visit.” However, Xi’s delegation stressed that it was only “a reunion for old friends.”

Only 17 of Xi’s “old friends” were able to attend the gathering. The Vice President arrived around 4:30 p.m. in Muscatine. Governor Branstad, welcomed Xi at the patio of Lande’s house. As Xi entered, Lande’s six-year-old granddaughter handed him flowers and fourteen fourth-year Chinese language students from Muscatine High School greeted Xi in Chinese.

“It’s amazing. … In 1985, we only had one translator, but our high school students are learning Chinese now,” Axel said.

The get-together lasted about 45 minutes. Lande first gave welcoming remarks. Xi then responded and expressed his thanks for Muscatine and his “old friends,” as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Xi thanked the hospitality of Muscatine residents and described his first experience as coming back home.

He said, “You can’t even imagine what a deep impression I had from my visit 27 years ago to Muscatine, because you were the first group of Americans that I came into contact with. … For me, you are America.”

Following Xi’s remark, his old friends shared their favorite memories with Xi from 1985. Some talked only briefly, while some shared long stories. The atmosphere inside was pleasant and full of laughter, as The Journal reported.

But outside, somewhat removed from Lande’s home, two groups of protestors gathered in Muscatine. While Tibetan protestors waved their Free Tibet flags, the Chinese students responded with their cry, “We love China.” However, the protests did not interrupt the event.

“Mr. Xi definitely saw the protestors, but I don’t think that was a problem. This is how things are in the U.S., and people have the right to express their ideas,” said Axel.

Xi then left Muscatine for Des Moines.

“In Muscatine, we felt honored in this visit,” Lande said. “It is a good example of treating people in a nice way and sometimes you get good turnout.”

Cornfield Diplomacy

Des Moines Register columnist Lauren Soth wrote the Pulitzer-winning editorial inviting Soviet Premier Khrushchev to Iowa in 1955.

He wrote: “We have no diplomatic authority of any kind, but we hereby extend an invitation to any delegation Khrushchev wants to select to come to Iowa to get the low-down on raising high quality cattle, hogs, sheep and chickens. We promise to hide none of our ‘secrets.’”

In 1955, tensions ran high between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Today, many popular narratives reanimate these tensions to describe the relationship between China and the U.S. But Xi’s visit took place in a completely different context. Despite disagreement on the trade deficit, China continues to be “a strong growth market” for American exporters, with U.S. exports to China reaching $104 billion in 2011, according to the U.S.-China Business Council.

At the state dinner, Branstad offered a toast to Xi and the “long-lasting friendship between Iowa and China.”

“We are proud of our mutually beneficial trading partnership with China. … We hope to build upon these partnerships in related areas where Iowa leads the world, such as biotechnology, advanced manufacturing, food processing, and financial services,” Branstad said in a press release.

The Chinese agricultural leaders signed trade agreements to buy soybeans worth $4.31 billion from the U.S. at the World Food Prize Center in Des Moines.

Xi also attended the first U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium the following morning, hosted by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Gary Locke, the U.S. Ambassador to China, kicked off the Symposium. Branstad, Governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, and Han Changfu, Chinese Minister of Agriculture, also spoke.

Xi then delivered an address to government and business leaders at the Symposium.

“I am happy that the first U.S.-China Agricultural Symposium is taking place in Iowa, not only because I led an agricultural delegation to Iowa 27 years ago. It is also because I have special feelings for agriculture.”

In his address, Xi stressed the importance of “strengthening agricultural trade cooperation between the U.S. and China” and “ensuring food security.” He said that China still needs soybeans and other food supplies from the U.S., but he also stressed that China is self-sufficient for key grains and has stabilized food security concerns.

After the Symposium, Xi left for his last stop in Iowa, a visit to the home of Iowa corn and soybean farmer Rick Kimberley in rural Maxwell, southeast of Ames.

The Vice President asked Kimberley many questions about his farm and even climbed into a John Deere tractor with the Iowa farmer, according to the Des Moines Register.

“We are so glad to see such a harmonious family,” Xi said.

The word “harmonious” had a special connotation for Chinese audience. It represents the signature ideology of the current Chinese President Hu Jintao and China’s changing focus from economic growth to overall social balance.

Matthew Johnson, Assistant Professor of History, said that Xi’s trip to Iowa was “a very new style of diplomatic engagement for a Chinese leader.”

“We’ll see what tangible benefits the visit may bring, given the complexity of the U.S.-China relationship, but it’s certainly a very admirable move. …The style of the visit indicates that Vice President Xi seems to recognize the wide range of interests that shape U.S. politics, and this bodes well for future relations between the two countries.”

Donglai Ren, Visiting Research Scholar from China at the Center of International Studies, also spoke highly of Vice President Xi’s visit to Iowa.

“Xi’s visit was the most successful and impressive visit to the U.S. since Deng Xiaoping’s visit in 1979. His words to Muscatine residents were very touching. It will become an oft-told tale in U.S.-China diplomatic history.”

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