Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) recalled the “new and fresh” US he enjoyed years ago in small-town Iowa in a made-for-TV visit aimed at showcasing his gentler side.
With the US and China in growing conflict on issues from trade to military expansion, Xi has tried to deflect concerns about Beijing’s intentions during a week-long US tour one year before he is expected to become president.
Taking to heart the Midwestern state’s motto “Iowa Nice,” China’s vice president sat on a couch in a Victorian house on bluffs above the Mississippi River on Wednesday as he reminisced over a visit to the city of Muscatine in 1985.
“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,” said Xi, smiling with his hands comfortably on his knees.
“My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America,” he told the group of more than a dozen town residents.
He recalled that the US and China had normalized relations just six years beforehand and added: “It was also my first visit to the US. So at that time, everything was very new and fresh.”
Xi, 58, is expected to lead the fast-growing power for a decade from next year. He has said little publicly about his priorities, leading US officials and experts to search for clues about how he would govern and relate to Washington.
The vice president, speaking to Muscatine couple Eleanor and Tom Dvorchak, recalled that he stayed in their son’s bedroom in 1985 and that “you had a lovely daughter.”
“She was very curious and asked us many questions, such as whether we had seen American movies,” Xi said, recalling that he told her that he had seen The Godfather and that the Dvorchaks gave him a farewell gift of popcorn.
Muscatine residents gave Xi gifts including framed pictures of the town and — in hopes he can better understand US President Barack Obama — the book Obama on the Couch, a look at the US leader by psychoanalyst Justin Frank.
While Xi has tried to focus on the positive, he has been trailed throughout his visit by protesters.
Tibetans shouted “Shame on China” in cold rain within earshot of Xi in Muscatine, denouncing what they say is repression that has led at least 20 Tibetans to set themselves on fire in protest in recent months.
Police kept a watchful eye as they separated the Tibetans from dozens of Chinese students, who welcomed Xi by waving Chinese and US flags, chanting back at the Tibetans: “We love China.”
Xi later headed to Iowa’s capital, Des Moines, for a formal dinner and he is scheduled to travel on to Los Angeles, where he is likely see a Lakers basketball game with US Vice President Joe Biden, who last year went to China to get to know Xi.
Biden and Obama on Tuesday welcomed Xi to Washington, and stressed hopes for cooperation, although the US leadership also raised concerns about human rights and what they see as China’s unfair trade practices.
Xi earlier on Wednesday toured Capitol Hill, which has been at the forefront of criticism of China. Top lawmakers politely received Xi, with little of the visible friction seen when Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) went last year.
However, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a staunch critic of China, used Xi’s visit to accuse Obama of “one dangerous concession after another” to Beijing.