DISCLAIMER: This article was originally published in The New York Times in February 2012
Twenty-seven years ago, a young man named Xi Jinping, on an agricultural research trip from his home in China, came to rural eastern Iowa and slept in Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak’s sons’ room. The boys had just gone off to college — their room still stuffed with the things of childhood — and Ms. Dvorchak said she felt bad. She had grown up reading Pearl S. Buck novels about the travails in rural China, and now here was a visitor, perhaps from that same hard place, and they had put him in there with the Star Trek action figures.
“He did not complain,” said Ms. Dvorchak, 72, who is now retired and living in Florida. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him — he was humble.”
On Wednesday [Feb. 8, 2012], Mr. Xi returned to Muscatine — triumphantly this time, with an entourage and a room of his own — as China’s vice president and heir apparent to the leadership of a rapidly rising world power. Seventeen people he met here in 1985, including the Dvorchaks, were invited to tea.
Casual it was not. Streets were blocked by the police around the neighborhood where the reunion took place. And then it began to rain — a cold, off-and-on drizzle that obscured the view of the Mississippi River, visible from the old houses, some stately and some ramshackle, that dominate the bluff.
About a block from the house where the tea took place, a few dozen people protesting China’s human rights record traded shouts with counter-protesters across the street. A pro-Tibet group had come down from Minneapolis and chanted slogans against Chinese policies in Tibet. Some Chinese students from the University of Iowa shouted back, “We love China.”
Chinese officials have said the trip flowed from Mr. Xi’s desire to relive a pleasant period from his past and to reconnect with Iowa farmers and other residents he came to know a quarter-century ago. It was also clearly a propaganda event at a time of heightened tensions between the United and China over a raft of issues, including differences over how to handle Syria’s violent crackdown of protests and suspicion in Beijing over the reassertion of American power in Asia.
The tightly choreographed moment was intended to show audiences in the United States and in China the deep connection that the presumed future Chinese president, now 58, feels with the people of the American heartland.
It was also likely meant to highlight China’s growing dependency on food imported from the United States. Iowa, the country’s leading soybean producer, is a big supplier to China. On Wednesday, Chinese trade representatives signed agreements with American grain companies to increase soybean imports.
But even if the trip was propaganda for the Chinese government and Mr. Xi, as many residents here cheerfully admitted, who cared? It was also a good advertisement for Muscatine, population 23,000. What was in 1985 just ordinary Iowa niceness came boomeranging back. Cornfield diplomacy worked.
And with reporters and cameras swarming in town — the Chinese news media were especially keen to get shots of the various houses and bedrooms where Mr. Xi stayed — Muscatine’s moment in the spotlight, many residents said, was not to be squandered. It is the sort of rural wisdom that Mark Twain — a local hero who lived briefly here on the banks of the Mississippi River and wrote for The Muscatine Journal in the 1850s — might well have praised or parodied: When opportunity knocks, shake it by the lapels until the coins fall out.
“We’ve displayed to this world leader our work ethic, No. 1, and our value for friendship; that’s No. 2,” Mayor DeWayne M. Hopkins said in an interview at City Hall. “If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here — and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing — then that’s a plus.”
At the Long John Silver’s fast-food restaurant, the sign out front said, “Welcome back to Muscatine Xi Jinping” on one side, and on the other, “Original menu available, fish sandwich 2 for $3.”
Inside, the general manager, Michelle Cacho, said that good buzz was good business. “It’s kind of propaganda, but if it helps folks in Iowa we might as well roll out the red carpet,” she said.
Other residents said they believed the compliment that Mr. Xi paid the town by coming back was real, and that residents should be honored.
“He could go to Nebraska, or anyplace else in heartland America, but he chose to come back here, which shows well for Muscatine,” said Dennis Figg, 62, who had stopped in at the Phillips 66 gas station on the edge of downtown to visit with a friend and buy some chewing tobacco.
Some of the people who played host to Mr. Xi in the 1980s, sounding like polished diplomats, said the lasting value of the visit was the relationships that would be built for Iowa’s sake or Muscatine’s or maybe for rural America in general.
“I’m hoping that our friendship from the past will be an example of how we build an even stronger relationship,” said Sarah Lande, who served on the committee that organized Mr. Xi’s trip to Iowa in 1985 and who held the tea on Wednesday.
The Muscatine-China connection is being bolstered, as it turns out, by one of the Star Trek-loving sons whose world Mr. Xi was exposed to in 1985, Mark Dvorchak. He is now 46, living near Los Angeles, and travels frequently to China and across Asia as an economic consultant, his parents said.