China’s Vice President Xi Jinping is coming to America. Next week, he’ll meet with President Obama at the White House. He’ll lead a trade delegation to California. And he also plans to make a stop in Muscatine, Iowa.
Why Muscatine? It turns out that Xi wants to catch up with old acquaintances — he first visited the town (population 22,886) in the 1980s, as part of an agricultural mission.
Back then, the man who is likely to soon become China’s president had dinner with Sarah Lande and her husband.
Lande recently thought back to that day, after giving a visiting journalist a warm welcome to her home.
“This is where we had dinner with Mr. Xi,” she says, “a long time ago.”
Back in 1985, when Xi had dinner at Lande’s house, he was just a midlevel Communist Party official, sent to Iowa on an exchange program from Hebei province.
“You know, he always spoke through an interpreter,” Lande says. “But he was eager, on time, professional, capable, eager to learn, happy to be here. The more I read about it, I keep saying, ‘Wow — we must have just done a bang-up job when he was here.’ “
Xi’s return to Iowa comes at the invitation of Gov. Terry Branstad. The governor traveled to China last year and met with Xi, who recalled his stay in Muscatine.
“We had this man at our house who could be president next year, and we just shake our heads, it’s still like, it’s [we're] in disbelief,” says Eleanor Dvorchak, one of Xi’s hosts during his visit.
Dvorchak and her husband, Tom, live in Florida these days. But at their former home in Muscatine, they put Xi up for two nights — in their college-age son’s vacant bedroom.
“I didn’t do anything to it, just left it the way it was: football wallpaper and Star Trek figurines on the wall,” Dvorchak says. “He was very pleasant, very warm. The only thing is — it just would have been better if we could have spoken more. But he did give us a bottle of spirits. And I mean, it was … moonshine. Very, very strong.”
The Dvorchaks are flying back to Muscatine for Xi’s return.
The Chinese official will be making only a quick stop. There’ll be no town parade, no grand tour. Xi will just have tea with about 17 of the people he met back in ’85.
The group will include Tom Hoopes, a retired vegetable farmer who gave Xi’s delegation a tour of his sweet potato fields, some 27 years ago.
“It’s probably the most humbling experience I think I’ve ever had,” he says, “to think that somebody would come and take as much interest as he has.”
It is easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm and quaintness of Xi’s return to Muscatine. But it’s also a sign of China’s diplomatic savvy: Just knowing he slept in that Star Trek bedroom — surely that counts as winning friends and influencing people.
And the trip comes at a time when American politicians are criticizing China for unfair competition and displacing American jobs.
Still, this doesn’t necessarily make the trip a cynical exercise in public relations. After all, Iowa is an agricultural powerhouse, and it exported more than $600 million in products to China in 2010.
All of that means this trip is good business, and good manners, for hosts and visitors alike.