Why ‘everyday people’ in Iowa were invited to dinner by Xi Jinping

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A group of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “old friends” from Iowa have been invited to a dinner he will attend in California next week — 38 years after they welcomed the then-unknown party official for a hog roast, farm tours and a Mississippi River boat ride as they showed him how capitalists do agriculture.

“This has been a heck of a journey — we can’t figure it out. We don’t even know why he likes us!” said Sarah Lande, an 85-year-old Muscatine resident who has maintained connections with Xi since he made his first visit to the US as the leader of a food processing delegation from China’s Hebei Province in 1985.

“But we’re eager to meet with him, too. We’re regular, everyday people,” Lande added.

Xi’s warm and enduring bond with the Midwesterners he first encountered nearly four decades ago stands in contrast with the suspicions and acrimony that have characterized relations between the two largest economies over the last few years.

Both Xi and President Joe Biden, who plan to meet Wednesday during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco, have taken recent diplomatic steps to ease the strains.

The Iowans’ invitations for the reception and dinner, on the sidelines of APEC, came through the the National Committee on US-China Relations and the US-China Business Council, in coordination with China’s embassy, Lande said.

The Iowans haven’t been told if they’ll get a private audience with Xi, who was 31 when they met him.

Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor and US ambassador to China, has also been invited, according to an aide.

In 1985, Gary Dvorchak’s parents gave Xi his bedroom, decorated with Star Trek items, in their Muscatine home. Dvorchak and his sister Paula, who talked to the future Chinese leader about American movies, are on next week’s guest list.

So is Luca Berrone, then an Iowa economic development official, who drove Xi around to company sites including Monsanto Co.Cargill Inc. and Quaker Oats, grain and livestock farms, the Amana Colonies — a religious community known for its farming heritage and communal living — and Iowa State University in Ames.

“He wanted to learn how to feed his people,” Lande said in a telephone interview. Xi had read Mark Twain “and he really wanted to see the Mississippi,” she said. She hosted him for a potluck at her home overlooking the river.

Berrone’s stops with the four-member delegation and their interpreter included a farm in Coggon, a spot where Twain had hidden manuscripts in a wall. Berrone arranged hotels as well as home stays where none were available.

“We had a really good time in two weeks,” he said. “We were like the road movie — five or six guys on a road trip.”

‘You Are America’

The Iowans made an impression on Xi, said Ken Quinn, the former president of the World Food Prize Foundation, who is planning to attend the Bay Area dinner.

“He was not anyone special and the friendship they showed him touched him personally,” said Quinn, who met Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, an architect of China’s economic opening, when he himself traveled to Iowa in 1980.

When Xi Jinping returned to the United States in 2012, as vice president and about to ascend to the presidency, he gathered with the “old friends” in Lande’s Muscatine home again. “He said, ‘You were the first people I met in America, and to me, you are America,’” she said.

That year, Xi invited more than a dozen of the Iowans to China, and “they had the whole thing set up in two months,” Lande said. “He was the top-down boss and he made it happen.”

Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan — a famous Chinese folk singer in her own right — threw a banquet for them. “She said, ‘Well, I just had to meet the people from Iowa,’” Lande recalled. “By the way, she is a lovely, beautiful lady. Her last remark was, ‘If we ever retire, I’m going to gather my daughter and we’re coming to Muscatine.’”

China’s embassy in Washington and the dinner’s organizers didn’t respond to requests for comment on Friday night.

The reunion aside, Iowa, a major soybeans and corn producer, has an interest in better relations between Washington and Beijing.

This week, China, a top soybean importer, bought more than 3 million metric tons of the commodity from the US, a volume that surprised the market. China had been buying cheaper Brazilian supplies and the move is a goodwill gesture ahead of the Biden-Xi talks, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing governmental decisions.

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