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Chinese leader gets a taste of the heartland

By Moni Basu, CNN
updated 10:06 AM EST, Thu February 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Xi Jinping, the expected next leader of China, made time to visit Iowa
  • In 1985, he led an agricultural delegation to Muscatine
  • He says it was "a joy" to again see people he met back then
  • On a five-day tour, Xi travels to Los Angeles Thursday

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama welcomed the man destined to become China's next leader with friendly but firm words on playing by the rules and respecting human rights.

But in Iowa, it was all love for Xi Jinping.

As a young Hebei province official in 1985, Xi led a delegation to the heartland state so that the Chinese could learn about agricultural practices. On that trip, he stayed in an ordinary American home and made friends with people who were as different from him as the ideologies that separated their nations.

He never forgot the hospitality and made it a point to take time on his five-day tour of the United States to stop in Muscatine, a small city of fewer than 25,000 people.

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Xi returned Wednesday to the elegant Victorian home of Roger and Sarah Lande, where he had dined 27 years ago. He was greeted by a chorus of "welcomes," a few even in well-practiced Mandarin.

In front of a raging fire, Xi settled on a cream-colored couch in the Lande living room. Later, at a state dinner in Des Moines, he thanked the 17 Iowans he met on his inaugural trip to America at a time when the Cold War still permeated American life.

"It is such a joy to meet you again," Xi said. "There is a tremendous reservoir of goodwill between the Chinese and American people and we each take great interest in the other."

He was happy to be back on the banks of the Mississippi, in the town where Mark Twain declared the sunsets to be "exceedingly fine."

The only blotch on the day: Human rights demonstrators who gathered behind the police barricades outside the Lande house on 2nd Avenue to decry Beijing's human rights record.

But prickly issues did not arise inside.

In Des Moines, Xi said he hoped friendship between the two peoples would grow and bear fruit like the oak trees of Iowa.

The Iowans, in turn, were proud that Xi had chosen to showcase their state on his tour of America. He is soon to become a very powerful man if, as, expected, he takes the helm of China's ruling Communist Party and ascends to the presidency next year.

Gov. Terry Branstad said Iowans were pleased to have befriended a man who has risen to such great prominence.

Branstad, who was serving his first term as governor during Xi's maiden visit, recognized the diplomatic milestone that had been marked back then. He also recognized the deeper significance of the visit.

Corn processing is what brought Xi to these parts in 1985. Now, as he eyes the job of leading the world's biggest buyer of commodities, he was back again to rub shoulders with America, the world's largest corn exporter, in the state that leads production.

Trade issues, obviously, were high on Xi's agenda.

At a U.S.-China Business Council event in Washington, Xi said relations between the two world powers were "at a new historical starting point at this second decade of the 21st century."

"We need to make important efforts toward mutual understanding and strategic trust," Xi said.

He defended Chinese economic policies that have been labeled unfair by the U.S. government. A chief complaint has been that China has manipulated its currency, keeping its value low, which makes Chinese goods cheaper.

He will address those issues again Thursday at a U.S.-China Economic Forum at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles. Rumor has it that Xi might even become the first Chinese official to make an NBA game.

Xi's choreographed trip to Washington was meant to burnish his credentials and provide his American counterparts a chance to size him up. President Hu Jintao made a similar visit 10 years ago as he was being groomed for China's top job.

But unlike his predecessor, Xi declared on the first day of his visit that he wanted to connect with Americans from all walks of life.

In Iowa, he did just that, meeting with farmers, business owners and ordinary people who may never again have a chance to shake the hand of a world leader. Call it diplomacy, Xi Jinping style.

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