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  • Aug 1, 2014
  • Updated: 7:34pm
Xi Jinping

From Obama to Iowa and old friends

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 February, 2012, 12:00am

A one-hour stay in the Midwestern United States town of Muscatine, Iowa, will give Vice-President Xi Jinping a chance to reunite with old friends, brush up on his down-to-earth image by chatting to the locals and set aside controversies that plague Sino-US ties.

The Mississippi River town may not play a big role in bilateral ties, but it once played a memorable role in showing how Xi interacted with Americans.

In April 1985, Xi, who was the director of a feed co-operative from Hebei province, led a five-member delegation to the Iowan town as the two places had a sister-state relationship. He toured farms, visited the local Rotary Club and watched a baseball game.

Nearly three decades later, Xi will be back for a visit next Wednesday, widely seen as a chance to get a glimpse of how he will shape Sino-US relations after succeeding Hu Jintao as president next year.

Xi, 57, is expected to push for agricultural co-operation with Iowa - a similar purpose of his visit in 1985 - but it will be his interaction with the Iowans he met 27 years ago that will come under the spotlight.

He is expected to briefly meet about 15 Muscatine residents, perhaps over a cup of tea.

The Chinese delegation made one specification about the gathering - only the people Xi met during his last visit will be allowed to attend.

Most of them are farmers who participate in a programme that encourages inter-country exchanges and are now busy recalling their memories with Xi.

Xi stayed for two nights at the home of Tom and Eleanor Dvorchak, who had a spare bedroom as their children were away at college. The couple have since moved to Florida, but they will return to Iowa for the reunion.

Reached by phone, Eleanor, now 72, recalled that she had considered redecorating the bedroom, which was filled with Star Trek toys, to make it more suitable for an adult, but she opted to leave it be as she believed it would not ruin Xi's experience.

The couple did not spend much time with Xi as he rushed off to different places after having breakfast, and did not return to their home until bedtime.

But Eleanor clearly remembered that Xi gave the family some Chinese liquor. 'We tasted it. Oh, it was very powerful,' she said. 'Xi is a lovely gentleman. We wish we could have spoken to him at that time, but we could not do that because of the language barrier.'

Sarah Lande, 73, who spent a decade as executive director of Iowa Sister States, which connects local residents with the global community, hosted a dinner for Xi during his visit.

'At that time, we could only communicate through interpreters and we did not get too much one-on-one conversation,' she said.

Back then, Lande was asked why she was hosting communist officials. 'We welcome officials from our sister states, no matter whether they are from a communist country,' she replied.

Tom Hoopes, now 73 and retired, who showed Xi around his farm for about an hour, said the Chinese delegation was eager to learn about his farming methods, and about how he grew sweet potatoes in his greenhouse.

'I just told them about the hotbed operation of my farm,' he said. 'He was very curious and receptive to any kind of insight. He was respectful.

'It was a humbling experience for me, even if I played only a minor part in hosting the Chinese delegation. And now I am given a good opportunity to remember all these things.'

But the Iowans did have some difficulty in recalling their memories of the delegation's visit. For the Dvorchaks, their Muscatine house has been sold twice since they moved to Florida and they threw away memorabilia.

'I regret that I did not take a picture with him that time,' Hoopes said. Still, Hoopes said he wanted to help refresh Xi's memories by presenting him with an album that includes old photos of Hoopes' farm.

The Dvorchaks want to give Xi a book entitled Obama on the Couch, in which author Justin Frank explores the personality of the US president and argues that some of Obama's decisions have undermined his personal objectives.

Dick Magelin, who was part of the group hosting Xi in 1985, said they wanted their reunion to be as casual as possible.

'He already has a heavy political and economic agenda to work on,' Magelin said. 'The trip to Muscatine isn't something of a state visit. We will just say hello and ask what has happened to his family and sons over the past years.'

But Hoopes said he wanted to ask Xi one question.

'I want to ask how he feels about the political system in China, and whether he had foreseen 27 years ago that he would reach this height in politics.'

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