Xi Jinping

Xi's happy return to town that made him welcome

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 February, 2012, 12:00am

Thorny issues between China and the US were put aside as Vice-President Xi Jinping swapped fond memories with old friends in a small farming town along the Mississippi River in Iowa. He visited the state in 1985, when few could have imagined how far he and his country would come.

China's leader-in-waiting added a stop in Muscatine - population 22,000 - to his tight five-day itinerary so he could be reunited with the Iowans he met 27 years ago.

Back then, Xi was a county-level official in Hebei in search of ideas to help his agriculture-rich province; they showed him around the region's hog-and-cattle operations, as well as its abundant corn and soya bean fields.

The gathering, held at the house of Sarah Lande, lasted only about an hour on Wednesday and there was little banter between the Iowans and Xi because he speaks little English.

But many of them were impressed by his charisma and his vivid memory for the details of his 1985 trip.

Xi, who spoke in a deep and confident voice, smiled throughout the chat in a room with dark blue walls, white trim, a large burning fire and Chinese calligraphy hung in two frames.

It was intended to be a casual and apolitical gathering, but Lande began by saying: 'We wish you a successful presidency.'

She added: 'I wish both the United States and China would just have a surge in the amount of visas that they issue, so we can have more international exchange and more trade, as we're having here between Iowa and China.'

Xi deftly shifted the conversation towards his first visit, expressing gratitude for the warm reception he received then.

'Coming here is really like coming back home,' he said.

'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 in contact with. My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.'

After his opening remarks, each of the 'old friends' took turns sharing memories of Xi's last visit. He recalled staying with Tom and Eleanor Dvorchak, who provided him a bedroom filled with Star Trek toys. And Xi remembered even minor details, such as the couple giving him popcorn when he left town.

'I remember I stayed in your son's bedroom, and that you had a lovely daughter. She was very curious and asked us many questions, such as whether we had seen American movies. When I said I had seen movies like The Godfather, she was surprised,' Xi told the couples.

Xi also recalled giving a bottle of Chinese liquor to Tom Dvorchak.

'Tell him that it was the strongest liquor I ever had,' Tom told Xi through an interpreter, prompting laughter.

Eleanor said Xi appeared to be as easy-going as he was in 1985, and he 'makes everyone feel comfortable' through his sense of humour.

'He was not making any jokes, but he gave clever responses, which were light-hearted and would make people laugh,' she said.

Cynthia Maeglin, who provided a bedroom for a member of Xi's delegation in 1985, learned that the official had later become the governor of Hebei, and had since retired.

'Xi even mentioned the hugging between us and the official we hosted,' she said.

Mary Jo Stanley, who hosted Xi for lunch during his 1985 visit, said the vice-president's good recollections 'showed that he enjoyed his previous trip, and apparently, it was a very meaningful trip to him'.

Tom Hoopes, who took Xi around his farm in 1985, felt that the vice-president had lightened up the gathering in the room.

'He is the man in charge, and you just have a warm feeling with his presence,' he said. 'Everything was 100 per cent positive.'

Hoopes originally planned to give Xi a photo of his old farm, but dropped that idea because the gathering host and the local Stanley Foundation think tank had compiled an album of Xi's 1985 pictures.

Barbara Woodstra, 86, said Xi invited her to visit China after she told him that she had a Chinese friend working in Shanghai.

'But I may not be able to do that because of my age,' she said.

Cynthia Maeglin's husband, Dick, suggested Xi bring his daughter, who is studying at Harvard, to visit Muscatine.

Xi's visit is undoubtedly one of the biggest events the town has seen in years. Although the gathering was limited to those who met Xi in 1985, many other nearby residents brought out their cameras, hoping to snap pictures of Xi's motorcade.

The Muscatine Journal also reprinted its front page from May 8, 1985, to commemorate this visit.

While the atmosphere was festive, security was tight around the Lande home, as some pro-Beijing supporters clashed with Tibetan and Falun Gong protesters.