Xi basks in Iowa hospitality
Muscatine - China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping swapped memories and gifts on Wednesday with people who hosted him in the small Iowa city of Muscatine back in 1985, when few imagined how far and fast he and his country would rise.
The one-hour stop for tea during Xi's closely watched tour of the United States one year before he is to take the helm of the world's most populous country avoided contentious US-China issues and focused on reminiscing.
"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 into contact with," he told a gathering in a Muscatine home with 17 people he met more than 25 years ago and Iowa officials.
"My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America," he said through an interpreter.
In 1985, Xi was a feed grain official from Hebei, Iowa's sister province in China. Back then, the arid, hardscrabble province that surrounds Beijing was a far cry from the rich farmland and prosperous farms of Iowa.
Xi spent two nights during his visit at the home of Eleanor and Tom Dvorchak, staying in their son's bedroom and struggling to chat with their daughter without an interpreter.
"She was very curious and asked us many questions, such as whether we had seen American movies," recalled Xi - himself known to be a fan of Hollywood war films.
Eleanor Dvorchak, now aged 72, recalled Xi - "the first Chinese person I had met" - as hard-working and focused on the study tour during his time in Muscatine.
"Little did we know," she said of Xi's career trajectory.
"It's unbelievable ... and he's not finished rising," said Dvorchak, who moved with her retired executive husband to Florida. Both Dvorchaks flew back to Iowa for the reunion.
Vice President Xi, aged 58, is all but certain to take over the top slot in China's ruling Communist Party later this year and then become China's next president in March 2013.
"Sometimes when I see the news I get depressed, but when I see him and he's such a people person I have so much hope for the future," said Eleanor Dvorchak.
Iowans pride themselves on hospitality, captured by the unofficial PR slogan "Iowa Nice", while the state's early slot on the US presidential primary election voting calendar every four years gives Iowa a major role in sizing up politicians.
Both qualities were on display on Wednesday in Muscatine, a picturesque Mississippi River city of 23 000 people.
Sue Koehrsen, who lives across the street from the 19th century three-storey house of reunion hosts Sarah and Roger Lande, handed out umbrellas to Chinese and American journalists who stood hours in cold rain waiting for Xi.
"I don't think any of us who live in this neighbourhood or even in the community knew it would be this big of a deal," she said. "We should have planned a party for all these people out there and entertained them."
Muscatine Mayor DeWayne Hopkins said the figure Xi cut at Wednesday's tea gathering was "electrifying" - a word seldom applied to China's mostly stolid leaders.
"He was very pleasing to look at, very pleasing to talk to, and to shake his hand," he said of Xi.
When it came to recalling what Xi saw, did and ate in 1985, "he remembered everything", said Hopkins. "It was uncanny, the man's memory."
Xi gave his hosts souvenirs neatly wrapped in decorative Chinese paper and was given a framed copy of the front page of the May 8 1985, edition of the Muscatine Journal that featured him in a group picture.
A small group of Tibetan protesters and activists from the Falun Gong spiritual movement got into a shouting match with Chinese well-wishers down the street from Xi's tea party, with several briefly breaching the security corridor near the Lande's house before police escorted them away.
But many people in Muscatine said they saw the relationship with Xi as an honour that would be good for their city and for Iowa's economy, and perhaps even for often thorny US-China relations.
"International trade can come from it, but really I think we're promoting the whole idea of getting along with our brothers and sisters all over the world," said Mary Wildermuth, executive director of the Muscatine History and Industry Centre, a small museum on the main street of the city.