China’s vice president shows personal side in Iowa

Published 2:09 pm Thursday, February 16, 2012

MUSCATINE, Iowa — China’s vice president remembered the popcorn he’d received as a parting gift — and the strong Chinese liquor he left behind. He recalled one young girl asking whether he’d seen American movies, and being shocked when he told her he’d watched “The Godfather.” And he often flashed that warm smile.

Twenty-seven years after Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met a group of Iowa farmers and business leaders during a diplomatic exchange to this Mississippi River town, the likely future leader of the world’s most populous country returned Wednesday for a brief reunion to reminisce with the first Americans he ever met.

“My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America,” Xi told a group of about 16 people he referred to as “old friends.”

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The relaxed gathering in front of a fireplace in Roger and Sarah Lande’s living room in Muscatine was a stark contrast to the more subdued, party-line approach Xi had while meeting with U.S. leaders in Washington earlier this week. During talks with President Barack Obama, members of Congress and others, Xi, 58, said little new — and did little to narrow the differences that exist between the U.S. and China on issues such as human rights.

But in Iowa, Xi had the opportunity to show a more personal side away from the tough questions on policy, trade and international relations. Those who attended the 45-minute reunion in the two-story Victorian home said Xi enthusiastically introduced Chinese government leaders traveling with him, shook everyone’s hand and even made a couple light remarks. They were struck by his charm, described him as genuine and hoped his friendly approach to Midwesterners is a positive sign for the future of U.S.-China relations.

“The guy has a clairvoyant memory. It was unbelievable,” said vegetable farmer Tom Hoopes, who showed Xi his asparagus and sweet potatoes during his stay in Muscatine in 1985. “I can’t imagine anyone carrying himself any better. I was absolutely overwhelmed. He carries himself like a true gentleman.”

The Landes hosted Xi for dinner when he visited Iowa in 1985 as a 31-year-old provincial Communist Party official hoping to learn about manufacturing, crops and livestock practices and raise his people’s standard of living. His return to Muscatine in the middle of his U.S. trip comes as he is preparing to become party leader this fall and assume China’s presidency in 2013.

Xi showed little spontaneity during the tightly scripted Washington leg of his visit, particularly when compared with his wisecracking host, Vice President Joe Biden. But he did appear confident and at ease — certainly more so than the current Chinese President Hu Jintao, who comes across as remote and aloof. Xi looked attentive, nodding and smiling when meeting Obama and other top officials.

Xi used his Iowa ties to show a personal connection with everyday Americans. In his main policy speech of the U.S. visit, delivered in Washington before he departed for Iowa on Wednesday, he made a strong call for more people-to-people ties between the U.S. and China, and referred to his 1985 trip to Muscatine.

“I’m going to tell my old friends there that the golden keys presented to us by Muscatine city hall symbolized the opening of local exchanges between our two countries,” he said. The local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, reprinted a photograph of him accepting the key to the city Wednesday and saying then, “Relations between the American people and Chinese people are deepening day by day.”

Nearly three decades later, he did his part to continue improving that relationship.

As he arrived, Xi told Sarah Lande as she greeted him on her porch, “I like your smile.” Inside, he sat on a couch in front of a fireplace as the Iowa residents recalled their memories of his trip. He stood to speak — through a translator — when it was his turn and told Eleanor and Tom Dvorchak he remembered sleeping in their Muscatine bedroom in 1985, their curious daughter who asked him lots of questions and the popcorn they gave him as a gift.

Dvorchak’s husband asked whether Xi remembered the liquor he’d given them — and he did. Chinese rice wine that was very strong.

“It’s inappropriate, but I love that man,” a beaming Eleanor Dvorchak said after the meeting, recalling how he’d even said she hadn’t aged since they last met and invited the Iowans to visit him in Beijing. “He’s just such a people person. When I see him, I have so much hope for the future. I really do.”

She said he seemed to be the same man he was in 1985: handsome, friendly and ambitious. And he had that same smile.

Xi also wooed Iowa residents during a state dinner Wednesday night at the Capitol, where officials and lawmakers praised him for his charisma and ability to connect with people. On Thursday, he will attend an agriculture conference in Des Moines and meet with a soybean farmer before heading to Los Angeles for the final stop of his tour.

While the tone of Xi’s visit reflects a different style to Hu, the vice president did not break any new ground on policy, emphasizing the fact that he is not yet empowered as leader. He has restated China’s standard positions on issues such as Taiwan — the self-governing island that Beijing asserts belongs to the mainland — and Tibet, where it faces unrest by supporters of exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama. He has also reiterated a demand that the U.S. lift restrictions on high-tech exports to China.

He did concede China needed to do more to improve human rights in his country — a longstanding U.S. demand and constant thorn in relations between the two powers. But his comments mimicked those made by Hu during his state visit to Washington in January 2011.

Evans Revere, a former senior State Department official on East Asia, said through his visit to Iowa, Xi was seeking to convey a sense of his personal engagement in the U.S. relationship and that he takes it seriously.

“I think Americans appreciate that kind of gesture, as the Chinese would of an American leader telling a personal story. It pulls at the emotional heart strings a little,” he said.