President Xi Jinping, the longest-serving head of state in the Peoples Republic of China, carried out a list of high-level meetings on Wednesday in California with U.S. lawmakers, including with President Joe Biden. But also on the agenda — and part of what has become a tradition for the leader — was a visit with some "old friends" from the state of Iowa.
Nearly 40 years ago in 1985, Xi — then a junior official, according to China — visited the small farming community of Muscatine, Iowa on what has been called an agricultural exchange. Xi stayed in a modest house while on the trip. which was later reportedly bought by an investor and named the "Sino-U.S. Friendship House."
Xi has made several personal visits to Iowa over the years, including in 2012, when the then-Chinese Vice President Xi visited the family of Natalie Kimberley, who invited Xi to her family farm in Maxwell, Iowa.
On Wednesday, President Xi planned to meet with his friends from Iowa again for dinner. The Des Moines Register reported that China's president would spend time with Iowans who visited with him during his visit to the state all those years ago. Meeting invitees included former U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, who was a first-term governor in Iowa when he met Xi during that first visit.
"We all thought Xi Jinping would be a reformer like his father, with further opening up, and it's gone the other way, with him becoming more authoritarian, and he’s consolidated power and given more authority to the Communist Party," Branstad said.
Ken Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Cambodia and the former president of World Food Prize, based in Des Moines, said the U.S. and China have the opportunity to work together to provide food for people in developing nations. Quinn was also invited to the dinner with Xi.
"Every time I’ve spoken in China and in the U.S., I stress there’s an opportunity for China and the U.S. to work together to uplift Africa and Earth," Quinn said.
Xi's first trip to the U.S. in 1985 was with a delegation from Hebei, considered the sister state to Iowa in China. The trip's mission was to bring back knowledge about farming technology and learn about tourism. The visit boosted the economy in Muscatine as well. In 2018 a Chinese businessman prepared to open the Merrill Hotel and Conference Center in the city's small downtown after investing $4 million into the project. The relationship between Iowa and China appears to remain closely rooted in agriculture.
Between 1969 and 1975 Xi worked as an agricultural laborer in Liangjiahe, Shaanxi. He was among millions of young Chinese from cities to be instructed by the Communist government to depart cities and work in the countryside. Xi joined China's Community Party in 1974.
Also at Wednesday's dinner was Des Moines businessman Luca Berrone, an Italian immigrant who is credited with facilitating the Xi delegation's visit to Iowa. He started the Hebei Province partnership with the Iowa Sister States program in 1983. The two parts of the world claim soybeans and corn as major crops for their farmers.
Berrone holds ties with Xi and has met with him before, including in 2012 in Beijing. Berrone said the home stays he planned for the delegation all those years ago in Iowa have helped build the longstanding relationships with influential Iowans that still appear to be holding on today.
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