China’s Xi Jingping goes to Iowa

Presumptive next leader of China returns to Muscatine, Iowa, a town he first visited 27 years ago to pick up farming tips as a provincial official.

What was the man assumed to be the next leader of China doing in a living room in Muscatine, Iowa, and what does his visit have to do with the future of Sino-US ties? Al Jazeera’s John Hendren explains.

It was probably the first protest ever to break out on the corner of 2nd and Spruce streets in Muscatine, Iowa.

On one side were students from as far away as Minnesota, chanting “Shame on China” and waving Tibetan flags.

Across the narrow residential street on Wednesday, the chanters were countered by Chinese young people, waving their own flag and singing nationalist songs.

The groups were divided by polite Iowa state troopers who occasionally urged them to remain on the sidewalk. Curious Muscatine residents took in the spectacle.

Xi Jingping is probably used to this by now. The Chinese vice-president and heir-apparent for the country’s top job returned for just over an hour to the town he first visited 27 years ago as a provincial official to pick up agricultural tips.

Cramped bedroom

Back then, Xi slept in a cramped boy’s bedroom, surrounded by Star Wars action figures.

“We just treated him like everybody else,” said Sarah Lande, who met Xi in 1985 and hosted his Wednesday visit.

“So, I think that was something special to him. He slept in the kid’s room, ate around the table.”

This visit was the most personal part of a public-relations tour that began with a meeting with President Barack Obama a kind of Nixon-goes-to-China in reverse.

Until China allows protesters to speak out at home, the advocates of Falun Gong and Tibet come to him abroad.

Call it heartland diplomacy.

Muscatine, Iowa, is a town of 23,000 people on the Mississippi river that exudes Midwestern charm. It’s a place where the first parking ticket is a warning [the second will cost you a modest $5] and where Mayor Dewayne Hopkins cheerfully brought out the key to the city for China’s vice-president.

“I’m anxious to meet him, shake his hand and call him friend,” Hopkins told Al Jazeera in an interview shortly before the visit.

Almost perfect pairing

Xi Jingping came for the same reason he came in 1985, to forge an almost-perfect pairing between a region that makes far more food than it needs and a growing nation with the world’s largest population.

He also came to polish a Chinese image that has gathered some taint in towns like this in recent years.

Despite the protest from out-of-towners, Muscatine is one of the few places in the US where criticism of China as an economic rival is muted. It doesn’t hurt Xi that he’s shown here smiling with American friends.

Until China addresses the human rights concerns within its borders, and Xi has acknowledged during his visit China had “room for improvement” on the issue, the protests by advocates of Tibet, which China invaded in 1959, and others will follow.

But for locals, it was an opportunity for personal diplomacy with a man expected to become one of the world’s most powerful leaders.

“We can be an example of how our two countries can work together as leaders in the world to resolve disputes,” Lande said.

There is more than a little self-interest on both sides. Down the Mississippi river, Midwestern manufacturers ship tractors to plow the Chinese soil and seed to grow Chinese crops.

Business opportunity

A few kilometres from Sarah Lande’s house is Musco lightning, the company that has illuminated Yankee Stadium and the Daytona Speedway.

It also lit up the International Sports Centre in Shanghai, where Musco has a factory one that could find itself busier than ever after visits like this one.

“Where there’s 1.3 billion people, a growing economy, [they] certainly have a lot of infrastructure growth happening there. It’s hard to ignore that as an opportunity for the business,” Musco’s Brett Nelson told Al Jazeera.

Of course, China ships to the US far more than it buys.

The shelves of the Dollar Tree store in a Muscatine strip mall are lined with Made in China labels on everything from kitchen utensils to rubber duckies.

The human rights concerns and accusations that China is an economic predator remain.

But, from the White House to the Mississippi, many Americans are hoping Xi’s brief encounters in the heartland will bring better relations with a longtime rival.

And, just maybe, a few more “Made in America” stickers across the Pacific.