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China VP's nostalgic Iowa visit
02:27 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Xi Jinping is making a special visit to Musactine, Iowa

Destined to lead China, Xi visited the town in 1985 as a provincial official

Sarah Lande is hosting Xi on this visit, part of his five-day U.S. trip

"He is coming only to visit old friends," she says

CNN  — 

When the man destined to become China’s next leader enters a circa 1866 Victorian house in Muscatine, Iowa, on Wednesday, things will feel familiar. It was here in the town’s historic district that Xi Jinping first feasted on Iowa beef and corn during a visit more than two decades ago.

Wednesday, the menu is a tad more upscale – crostini with tenderloin, spring rolls and bacon-wrapped scallops. And the excitement, decidedly more palpable.

After all, back in 1985, Xi was a provincial official from the hog-farming region of Hebei, Iowa’s “sister state.” He wanted to see how Americans raised their livestock and learn about different applications of corn, said Sarah Lande, owner of the Victorian and host of Xi’s visit.

“I think at that time in particular, not many people from China had come to our state and our side had not seen many Chinese people,” she said. “So it was very exciting for all of us. We wanted to learn more about each other.”

She would have been thrilled to have another Hebei province official visit quiet Muscatine. She’s honored and humbled that Xi chose to see his old friends again.

In the United States for a five-day visit, Xi, who is widely expected to become the next Communist Party leader and president of Asia’s economic powerhouse, met Tuesday with President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials in Washington.

But part of Wednesday is reserved for a private visit to this small eastern Iowa town known for farming, the largest Heinz plant outside of Pittsburgh and factories that used to spit out billions of mother-of-pearl buttons. That was before the refinement of plastic.

Now with Xi’s visit, the global spotlight will shine on Muscatine, if only for an hour on Wednesday.

The town has never seen so many security personnel. Nor have the high school boys swim champions had to share headlines before in the local newspaper.

As Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad put it: This is the biggest thing to hit Muscatine since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

Chris Steinbach, editor of the Muscatine Journal, said he had received thousands of e-mails from journalists around the world who were curious about Xi’s visit.

“It’s obviously a pretty big deal,” said Steinbach, “You never know what will come as a result of this kitchen-table diplomacy.”

That kind of one-on-one relationship made an impression on Xi on his first trip to Iowa.

“When you get the opportunity to meet somebody in their home or in a private setting, you get to know them differently than at a state dinner,” Steinbach said. “Clearly that worked on Mr. Xi when he was here 27 years ago.”

Rewind to a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was ascending to the leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, Terry Anderson was taken hostage in Lebanon and Tiananmen Square was just another place in Beijing.

Xi arrived in Muscatine in April 1985 with a Chinese delegation looking into farming technology.

Doyle Tubandt, president of Muscatine Foods Corp., recalled how Xi discussed globalization, its scope then unimaginable to many Americans.

“Here we are 27 years later and it sure is,” said Tubandt about the global economy. His own company now exports food and pet products to China.

Back then, Tubandt escorted Xi on a tour of a corn processing plant. At times, the language barrier was hard to overcome. How do you translate words like centrifuge? Tubandt gestured heavily and drew drawings in the sand to explain things to his Chinese visitor.

He kept a tin of black tea that Xi presented to him as a memento of the visit. After all these years, the tin is preserved half full.

But for all the talk of trade between Washington and Beijing, Xi’s visit to Muscatine is very personal.

“He is coming only to visit old friends,” Lande said.

It has been a lot of work, a bit crazy for a one-hour visit, Lande said. But it’s worth it to have an old friend back.

Both Lande and Tubandt have given thought to what they might say when they come face-to-face with China’s presumptive next president.

“It’s a bit daunting when I think about it, so I don’t try to think about it very much,” Tubandt said. “It’s telling to me that he’s coming here. He understands the importance of long-term friendships.”

Lande said she wasn’t nervous until she woke up Tuesday.

“What can you say when you have one minute to say it?”

Lande said she will talk about building a bridge to friendship in the future, and hope that Iowa can set a global example. It’s not often Muscatine residents have a chance to do that.