China’s President Xi Jinping has an unlikely relationship with rural America. Since the 1980s, he has visited Iowa on political business — twice.
The trips portrayed him as a friendly and global leader, potentially aiding his rise to power in China.
In a detailed profile he wrote of the controversial Chinese leader, Evan Osnos, a non-resident fellow at the Brooking Institute’s John L. Thornton China Center and New Yorker writer, recently called Xi “the most authoritarian leader since Chairman Mao.” Then just an up-and-coming Communist Party member, Xi was already awaiting a promotion when he visited Iowa the first time in 1985.
For what’s believed to have been his first trip outside of China, Xi led an animal-feed delegation in Muscatine, Iowa, where he toured farms and visited rotary clubs for two weeks. He even stayed with a local family, the Dvorchaks, in a room complete with football-themed wallpaper and “Star Trek” actions figures.
As China’s vice president, Xi returned to Muscatine, Iowa in 2012 for more “cornfield diplomacy,” as The New York Times referred to the choreographed events.
“When he visited in 1985, Xi was a low-level bureaucrat,” Osnos told Busines Insider. “But if you fast forward a generation to his return trip, as the heir apparent, that was a calculated gesture intended for two audiences: He wanted to show Americans that he was approachable and comfortable, and he wanted to telegraph to his countrymen that he had the stature of a global leader.”
It’s interesting that Xi would choose Iowa over Washington, DC, but that decision served many purposes. The Iowa visit highlighted China’s increasing dependence on US food exports, especially soybeans grown in the state. It also helped smooth out tensions over Syria’s crackdown on free speech at the time.
“Reconnecting with Iowans on this trip could help give Americans a more human image of the Chinese leader, not unlike Vice President Joe Biden’s ‘noodle diplomacy’ at a small restaurant in central Beijing during his visit last August,” as Time’s Austin Ramzy wrote. “A trip to the heartland surely beats a photo op in California or D.C.”
Upon reuniting with “old friends” on his second trip, Xi told the Muscatine Journal: “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with … To me, you are America.”
When Xi initially visited, former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad formed a friendship with the Chinese politician, and in fact, helped organise Xi’s second visit to Iowa in 2012.
A CCTV reporter asked Branstad what traits Xi possessed that would bode well for US-China relations. Branstand said: “He’s very personable. When we had the state dinner in Des Moines, about half or maybe even over half of his remarks were personal, off-script. I was impressed with that, and I think it was very sincere and very genuine.”
Branstand also called Xi a “progressive” trying to “open China” and said he wanted to continue to grow the relationship. Xi invited Branstand and others he knew from Iowa to China the next year.
Xi isn’t the first foreign politician to take advantage of the Midwest’s image as America’s heartland. Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union during the Cold War, visited the town of Coon Rapids, Iowa at the height of the conflict in 1959 — also for agricultural reasons. The trip highlighted the importance of person-to-person dialogue.
“[In the Midwest] the actual discussions tend to be a break from whatever negotiation is being conducted in Washington at the time, and it’s a chance for both sides to get out of the hothouse of the capital,” Osnos explained. “It’s a well-trod route, and I suspect it will continue to be.”
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