Love is in the air in Iowa — or at least the diplomatic equivalent of it.
When Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in this small town late Wednesday, carefully chosen welcoming gifts were on hand, nostalgic remembrances were on everyone’s lips and hearts all around were ready for the wooing.
Officially speaking, Xi, who is expected to become China’s president next year, picked Iowa as the centerpiece of his U.S. tour because he visited here as a lowly provincial official in 1985 to learn about American agriculture.
But, more broadly, the town of Muscatine provides a convenient backdrop for Chinese officials hoping to emphasize the idea of an enduring U.S.-Chinese friendship at a time when the two nations are fierce economic competitors, policy opponents and military rivals.
The Chinese want to remind Americans — and their audience back home — that the two nations are also intimately intertwined as trading partners and stakeholders in global affairs.
“The relationship is like some magnetic field where there’s powerful attraction and repulsion. It’s what makes these exchanges so hard,” said Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “The Chinese are extremely sensitive to any sign of disrespect even as they do things that are clearly not worthy of respect. Meanwhile, you have Americans who are used to being the wealthy, dominant one, evangelizing their ways and thinking.”
To say that U.S.-Chinese relations have changed since Xi was last here would be an understatement. Many in Muscatine — population 23,000, 87 percent white, 0.8 percent Asian American — who hosted him back then remember the exotic nature of his visit nearly three decades ago. China was just opening up, and Xi was a vaguely congenial, though serious, leader of a small agricultural delegation, residents recall.
“It was difficult to really get beyond that superficial level. They didn’t speak English, we didn’t speak Chinese, and there was only one interpreter,” said Sarah Lande, who helped plan Xi’s two-night stay.
The warmth and hospitality Xi apparently experienced, Lande said, was partly born of a limited budget. With little more than gas money from a “sister state” organization, she found beds for Xi and his delegation by roping in friends who had hosted exchange students or had an interest in faraway places.
Among them was a Muscatine housewife, Eleanor Dvorchak, and her husband, who ended up with the future leader of China sleeping in their sons’ bedroom, surrounded by “Star Trek” figurines.
The next morning, with the interpreter and the other officials sleeping elsewhere and her husband off to work, Dvorchak shared breakfast with Xi in a sometimes awkward silence.
“We managed to communicate just basic things, like offering a cup of tea or water. It didn’t even get to ‘How many children do you have?’ ” said Dvorchak, who is now 72. After breakfast, the pair sat in the living room, staring out the picture window, waiting for Xi’s ride to arrive.
“At the time, it was a little awkward. I don’t know what he thought of it all,” she said, “but it made a deep impression on me, and I guess apparently on him, too.”
In the years since, U.S.-China relations have been markedly cooler. Military ties between the countries have been cut off repeatedly for months at a time. Both sides routinely resort to heated rhetoric over China’s economic policy, among other issues.
At a State Department lunch with Xi on Tuesday, Vice President Biden cited a long list of U.S. grievances: human rights, theft of intellectual property, China’s currency valuation, fair trade practices and differences over policy in Syria.
Xi, appearing before the U.S.-China Business Council, offered a mild retort Wednesday, saying the two countries must build greater trust between them. U.S.-China cooperation is on a “course that cannot be stopped or reversed,” he said.
“These summits are kind of like date night,” said Michael Green, a former White House adviser on Asia. “No matter what happens during the week — and a lot of bad things happen in U.S.-China relations — every once in a while the leaders have to get together and say: ‘I love you, man. Or if I don’t love you, at least I’m going to work with you.’ ”
So it was that Xi found himself at an afternoon tea Wednesday in a three-story house in Muscatine, surrounded by friendly faces he hadn’t seen in nearly three decades.
For her part, Dvorchak, who now lives in Florida, flew back to Iowa for the occasion. She had picked out the perfect gift to help China’s future leader understand her own president: a copy of the pop-psychology book “Obama on the Couch.”
“I even learned to write his name in Chinese so I could do a little inscription,” she said. “Who knows? No one would have guessed all those years ago that hosting this man from China would turn out the way it did. You never know what will make an impression.”
Staff writer Howard Schneider and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.