Midwest state relishing its moment in the spotlight
During his visit next week to Iowa, Vice-President Xi Jinping will reconnect with acquaintances he met decades ago rather than touch on anything concerning Sino-US ties, but the brief stop is significant for both the Midwestern state and for Xi himself.
For Iowa, hosting the future leader of another country is almost unheard of. And for Xi, his interaction with the Iowans will show that his ties to the US go back a long way - nearly three decades.
Reached by phone on Wednesday, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad said he had suggested the inclusion of Iowa in Xi's itinerary during a trade mission Branstad made to Beijing in September.
'At that time, he gave us 50 minutes of his time, which is a very large amount of time for somebody with a busy schedule. And the first thing he said was, 'I was in your office on April 26, 1985',' Branstad said, adding that 'Xi was impressed with the people he met here. I invited him to come back and we would do a reunion with the people he met'.
Branstad, who was re-elected to the governor's office in November 2010 after serving in the position from 1983 to 1999, first met Xi in 1985. He described Xi as being a hard-working and smart man.
'I'm back where I was; I'm back governor again. But Xi has risen from just a local leader to being the next leader of China. He has made great progress, and I am back where I was,' Branstad said.
Speaking about Xi becoming China's president next year after a party reshuffle this autumn, Branstad said: 'I think it is a very positive thing for relations between our two countries, because obviously he has got a wonderful personality. He is very much a people person. He is very intelligent and interested in learning from others, as well as continuing to build a strong economic power in the world.'
Iowa rarely sees international guests of this magnitude. In 1979, Pope John Paul II drew 350,000 people - the largest single gathering in Iowa's history. And two decades before that, in September 1959, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the United States.
In the depths of the cold war, Khruschev came to research farming methods in the Midwest's corn belt, which includes Iowa, and to visit a friend called Roswell Garst, who farmed corn in neighbouring Minnesota and who had met Khrushchev during his visit to the Soviet Union several years earlier.
Branstad told a news conference on Monday that Xi's visit ranked right up there with those of both the pontiff and Khrushchev, describing Xi's trip as the 'biggest and most significant' that he had seen as governor.
'This one [Xi's trip], I think, for the economic future of our state, is even more significant,' he said.
Xi and his delegation of up to 200 officials and businessmen will make a brief stop in the town of Muscatine next Wednesday. There, he will meet for tea with his old Iowan 'friends' at the home of Sarah Lande, the former president and executive director of Iowa Sister States - a programme that connects local residents with the global community. He will then have a state dinner in Iowa's capital, Des Moines, that evening.
The next day, Xi will attend an agriculture symposium, which was originally planned for Washington but later moved to Iowa.
Iowa will probably use the occasion to increase business opportunities. The state's exports to China grew by 1,300 per cent from 2000 to 2010.
'Some contracts will be signed during his visit,' Branstad said. 'Iowa has been selling soybeans and corn. We also have companies doing business in China.'
But the visit will also put the state into the international limelight.
Vladimir Sambaiew, president and CEO of the Muscatine-based think tank Stanley Foundation, said Xi's trip was an important economic opportunity for Iowa to connect with senior Chinese officials, and that it was an honour for Iowa to host Xi.
'From Iowa's side, it is a nice opportunity to show a part of the US that many foreign leaders do not see. Many foreign leaders come to the US to have formal meetings in Washington, but they often do not get a chance to even minimally understand that it is a very big and diverse country here in the US,' he said.
For China, the Iowa trip allows Xi to show his personal and human side. US politicians have made it clear that they do not know much about Xi other than that he is regarded as a 'princeling', as the son of communist official Xi Zhongxun , who visited Iowa in 1980. US Vice-President Joe Biden has also said he was impressed with Xi's 'openness and candour'.
'I think, from Xi's side, coming to Iowa is a way to show that he knows America quite well,' said David Shorr, the Stanley Foundation's programme officer.
Professor Jin Canrong, an expert in US affairs at Renmin University, said the trip to Iowa was arranged to show that Chinese politicians are not necessarily 'strongmen'.