Chinese Vice President Xi Visits Iowa

Branding the PRC's Next Leader

Xi arrives for a plenary session of the NPC in Beijing. (Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters)

Between trips to Washington and Los Angeles, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is scheduled to make an overnight stop in Iowa. On Wednesday, Xi will travel to the small city of Muscatine to visit with Iowans he first met 27 years ago when he was touring the state as a county-level official. In the evening, he will attend a 650-guest dinner hosted by Governor Terry Branstad in Des Moines. The trip around the United States will pave the way for Xi to gradually assume responsibility for foreign policy later this year, when he is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as General Secretary of China's ruling Communist Party. With the transition as backdrop, Xi's stay in the Hawkeye State will feature a nostalgic, although carefully stage-managed twist on past precedents.

Ten years ago, on the eve of his own ascension to the top position in the party hierarchy, Hu made a broadly similar outing, touring New York and meeting with the U.S. president and vice president in Washington. On this journey, Xi, too, will try to demonstrate that he can confidently manage the crucial but friction-prone relationship with the United States. No diplomatic breakthroughs are expected; rather, China's aim is a smooth and embarrassment-free affair that rounds out Xi's debut on the world stage.

The Iowa trip is, in part, about agricultural products -- a large and growing component of American exports to China. These will take the spotlight at a USDA symposium in Des Moines. Still, the sentimental aspect of the trip is likely to receive more attention than any discussions of soybeans and hogs. In this regard, Xi's visit will stand out in comparison to some of his predecessors'. To be sure, Chinese leaders' past tours of the United States have also included personal touches -- in 1997, for example, Jiang Zemin met in Philadelphia with a former professor and a classmate from his school days in Shanghai. But Xi's acquaintance with Iowa dates back decades, to 1984, when Branstad, early in his first stint as governor, met Xi on a sister-state trip to Hebei Province. Xi then visited Iowa the next year as head of a local agriculture delegation and met with farmers, toured a grain-handling equipment plant, took in a baseball game, and stayed for two nights in the home of an Iowan family.

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