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The Bridges of Muscatine county, Iowa

The Bridges of Muscatine county, Iowa

Maybe it’s the “fire island” of the Sioux, maybe it’s the corn, but whatever draws China’s heir-apparent to Muscatine, Iowa, it holds special significance in building new bridges between the US and China. J BROOKS SPECTOR probes beneath the bucolic country ambience.

Wednesday 15 February 2012 may be the most important day in Muscatine, Iowa’s history since its establishment in 1833.

Back then, the town was named either for the nearby Mascouten Native American inhabitants or from the Sioux for “fire island” – no one quite knows for sure anymore. Regardless of how the town came to be named, Major William Williams, an early visitor, was moved to write that it was “a fine town, one of the most important points in the state. Its situation on one of the great bends of the Mississippi has great commercial advantages… [it] is the natural depository for a vast amount of trade from the surrounding country.”

And now it has played host to Xi Jinping, the man almost certain to be the next president of the People’s Republic of China. This was a return visit to a place he first encountered some 27 years ago. 

Xi’s circumstances now, of course, are a far cry from what they were back then. Xi was a young bureaucrat, leading a delegation to look at pig production. Then, as now, Iowa was one of the country’s most important agricultural producing and exporting states. The state’s secretary of agriculture, Bill Northey, said they were looking forward to Xi Jinping’s visit to help secure deals with China on soybean, pork and corn exports.

Northey explained, “The benefit of trade with China is huge for us. I am looking forward to building better connections and have longer conversations about what we can do to build more business relationships between Iowa and China.” Northey had earlier told journalists, “Iowa remains the number two state [for the whole country] for (agricultural) exports as international demand remains strong and our corn, soybeans and meat products have a great reputation around the world. As countries in Asia continue to develop and incomes rise, I expect our exports to continue to grow.” Northey added “Soybean [in Iowa] is the biggest crop because China is the largest buyer in the world, and that demand has grown in the last 15 years.”

China began to import soybeans in 1996 and by 2010 was importing some 54.8-million tons of soybeans a year, making it the largest importer of the crop in the world. There are 90,000 farmers in Iowa, who produce about 20% of the soybean products in the US. Overall, the Chinese now probably consume more of Iowa’s agricultural output than Americans do.

Northey is clearly less than ruffled by China’s forceful rhetoric about the South China Sea or the possibility it is developing a blue water navy to challenge the US in the Pacific – or about the people of Tibet for that matter. That’s the thing about the massive intertwining of the US and Chinese economies: while the folks in Iowa and everywhere else are playing on Wiis and iPads, the people of Chongqing and Shenzen are enjoying Moo Shu pork courtesy of Iowa’s massive agribusiness sector. This is the Iowa portrayed in films like The Bridges of Madison Country, State Fair, The Music Man and Field of Dreams rather than the America that has entered that long, slow, final decline of the chattering class.

As for Xi Jinping, after a busy day of frank discussions on all the many prickly bits of the bilateral relationship with the President, vice president, secretary of state and Pentagon officials and generals  – no screaming or hair-pulling, but no kiss-kiss, hug-hug either – headed off to America’s Midwest for a reunion with his past  and an exploration of how the American and Chinese economies will become even further entwined in the future.

On his first visit, Xi had stayed in Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak’s home, in their sons’ bedroom. Their two boys had gone off to university, but the room was still decorated with typical childhood artefacts like Star Trek action figures on the chest of drawers. For this visit, the 17 people Xi had met in 1985 were invited to a late afternoon tea with him to rekindle memories from that earlier time. On meeting the gathering of old acquaintances, Xi told them “My impression of the country came from you. For me, you are America.”

Chinese officials were describing this event to the American media as arising from Xi’s deep desire to relive a pleasant period in his past – as well as to reconnect with those earnest, salt-of-the-earth Iowa farmers he came to know back then. But make no mistake about it; this event has been thoroughly scripted to demonstrate to audiences in both nations that China’s future president feels a real connection with America’s heartland. (All these high-level visits have an intricately prepared back story. Event handlers spend great amounts of energy making sure the people, sites, sets and props make a particular point visually for international television audiences.)

Xi’s hostess back in 1985, Eleanor Dvorchak (now retired in Florida) came back to Muscatine to join in the fun and has become the centre of a modest media frenzy of her own. She was booked solid for interviews, including a number with Chinese media outlets wanting to capture graphic images of the farm buildings and homes where Xi and his group had stayed and visited years before.

Speaking to American reporters, Dvorchak explained that as a child she had been fascinated with China from Pearl Buck’s popular novels and had been delighted to meet a flesh-and-blood visitor from that world. From her reading, she felt she understood what Xi had had to endure during Mao’s Cultural Revolution (having been forcibly rusticated with his father during that period), but she admitted she had been a bit embarrassed to put her foreign visitor in a bedroom with all those toys and action figures. Dvorchak said Xi never complained. “Everything, no matter what, was very acceptable to him – he was humble,” she said.

Xi’s own fascination with America follows in the cowboy-boot-steps of other Chinese VIP visitors. When Deng Xiaoping visited the US in the late 1970s, he “fessed” up to his enthusiasm for cowboys and rodeos and was photographed in that enduring image wearing an oversized white cowboy hat. His successor, Jiang Zemin, reminded everyone of his love of American history, and Zhu Rongji, a prime minister, had visited with the Denver Broncos football team on his visit to America.

For Muscatine residents, still just a small town of 23,000 people, getting this moment in the international spotlight became an opportunity to honour the values of rural Americana – along with a chance that the visibility might pay off economically. This attitude spins right out of Mark Twain’s writing, a man, after all, who had also spent some time in Muscatine. Twain had written: “When opportunity knocks, shake it by the lapels.”

Muscatine’s mayor DeWayne Hopkins told the press just prior to Xi’s visit, “We’ve displayed to this world leader our work ethic, number one, and our value for friendship, that’s number two. If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in[sic] encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here — and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing — then that’s a plus.”

Hopkins added, “People in Iowa are not only planting and selling crops, but they sell the seeds that help crops, so we have companies like Pioneer and Monsanto and other seed companies expanding because they see that people would like to pay good prices for good seeds.” he said. Besides the Muscatine stopover with its gauzy nostalgia, the plan is for Xi to attend a colloquy about agriculture in the Iowa state capital of Des Moines, before heading off for the final part of the schedule in Los Angeles.

Of course, Xi’s visit has not been totally without controversy – beyond the unresolved economic and political issues that were there before the visit and will remain after he leaves. At his meeting with members of Congress, many of them critics of US–China relations, Xi took some hardball questions on China’s record on human rights, its currency exchange rate and its vote with Russia against this month’s UN resolution on Syria. There were also pro-Tibet demonstrators near the White House and the Chinese embassy during the visit.

And then, right in the middle of this visit, it came out that the Chinese had declined to issue a diplomatic visa for the state department’s special representative on religious issues, Suzan Johnson Cook, embarrassing officials in both countries with the timing of this report.

Reporting on the visit that wasn’t going to take place, The Washington Post said: “The State Department declined to comment about the matter (on) Tuesday. When asked about the trip last week, on the day Cook was supposed to leave, spokesman Anthony Pahigian said: ‘She has no specific dates at this time. We are engaging with the Chinese government to find a mutually convenient time’.”

The Post added “President Obama, who met with Xi on Tuesday, has been criticized by human rights groups, religious leaders and Republican lawmakers who say he has not been forceful enough in challenging China on issues such as its crackdown on Tibetans and the recent imprisonment of several religious and dissident leaders.” If Johnson’s visit never takes place, it could give Obama’s opponents in the Republican Party at least one line of attack for the upcoming campaign in which the president’s international relations approval ratings, so far, remain on the positive side.

Nevertheless, no one really expected this visit would resolve much, if anything. What it has done, and was expected to do, was to give Xi a better understanding of the people in the Obama administration and vice versa. And by scheduling this get-acquainted trip now, in the run-up to the election later this year, it seems the Chinese may have been engaged in a close reading of polls that now seem to point Obama’s way for him to achieve a second four-year term. Consider this trip, therefore, to be a down payment on the future. DM

For more, read: 

  • Xi wraps up highly scripted visit to US capital at the AP.
  • For China’s Vice President, Afternoon Tea and a Return to Americana in the New York Times.
  • Iowa Agricultural Exports Top $7 Billion at (an Omaha, Nebraska TV station website). 
  • Iowa benefits from ag deals with China at the China Daily.
  • Muscatine gearing up for Chinese vice president’s return visit at the Cedar Rapids Gazette website.
  • Chinese blocked visit by U.S. religious freedom envoy, advocates say, in the Washington Post.
  • Muscatine, Iowa on Wikipedia.

Photo: Iowa Mayor Dwayne Hopkins (R) presents China’s Vice President Xi Jinping (2nd L) with a key to the city of Muscatine, as Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, left, Sarah Lande, (3rd left) and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds Muscatine (2nd R), in Muscatine, Iowa February 15, 2012. REUTERS/Kevin E. Schmidt/Pool.


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