US policymakers say they know little about Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), the country’s likely next leader, but they are certain on one point — he is fond of Iowa.
When Xi visits the US in the middle of next month he will return to the Midwestern state to reunite with Iowans he met on his first visit to the US in 1985 when he was a low-ranking local official on an exchange.
“He was very pleased with the very friendly, warm reception he received in Iowa, and he really feels a kinship and friendship with the people of Iowa,” Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said.
Branstad visited Beijing last year to invite Xi. He said the vice president received him at the Great Hall of the People for an unusually long 50 minutes and revealed that he had saved the itinerary from his 1985 trip.
“The first thing he said was: ‘I was in your office in Des Moines on April 26, 1985,’” said Branstad, a Republican who has been elected governor five times. “Obviously Iowans made a very good impression on him. I think coming to Iowa symbolizes that he wants to focus on cooperation.”
Xi, who will receive a White House welcome from US President Barack Obama on Feb. 14, will travel the following day in Iowa starting in Muscatine, the Mississippi River town he visited as a county official from Hebei Province.
Branstad said Xi would meet Iowans from the 1985 trip and then head to Des Moines, the state capital, for a formal dinner. Xi may also visit a farm before heading on Feb. 16 to California, his final stop, the governor said.
Iowa’s interest in China is largely commercial. Its exports to China have soared in recent years as the country’s rising middle class buys more pork, corn, soybeans and other agricultural products from the US Midwest.
However, besides bringing business, some Americans hope that such personal contacts can help build trust between the US and China, and lower mutual suspicions.
Vlad Sambaiew, president of the Stanley Foundation, a Muscatine-based think tank that supports international dialogue, said that many future foreign leaders had formative exposure to the US when visiting small communities such as his own.
“I’m always impressed about how we hear many years later about how someone really enjoyed their visit,” said Sambaiew, a former US diplomat. “I think it provides a perspective that’s very different than if you’re only meeting with officials in Washington, New York or another major metropolitan center. People do tend to be much more informal and Iowa has this reputation of being a very friendly state.”
It is not the first time Iowa has taken a role in international diplomacy. At the height of the Cold War in 1959, then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev toured a farm in Coon Rapids, a now-famous visit that helped humanize the superpowers.
Sambaiew said that there was nowhere near as much hostility at the present time between the US and China, with about 3,000 Chinese students in Iowa alone.
The two countries have myriad disputes that are expected to come up during Xi’s visit. The US has repeatedly voiced concern about Beijing’s rising military spending, while many Chinese policymakers are convinced that Washington is trying to contain it.
The US is also likely to raise concerns about trade and human rights, amid accounts that China has recently shot dead protesters and imposed a virtual lockdown on Tibetan-inhabited areas.