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

Chinese Vice President Xi Visits Iowa

Branding the PRC's Next Leader

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.

Xi's dropping in on Americans he met long ago is an effort to highlight his human side. Proving he can connect to ordinary folks is valuable because, in China, Xi is well known as a quintessential "princeling," whose rise through the ranks owes much to his late father, Xi Zhongxun, a high-ranking party leader during the communist revolution and a champion of reform under Deng Xiaoping. The echo of Xi's 1985 trip, when he served as a low-level official, will serve to remind audiences in both countries that his ascent resulted not merely from riding his father's coat-tails but also from his own dues-paying over the last three decades. Accounts of his career have emphasized that his youth included plenty of hardship. His father, a victim of Mao Zedong's vendettas against his own colleagues, spent years in political purgatory in the 1960s and 1970s. And Xi, like millions of other Chinese youths, was sent to a remote and impoverished part of the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

With the formal meetings with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden (his official host in the United States), and others in Washington behind him, Xi may feel at liberty to relax a bit in Iowa and show a livelier side. There, the consequences of any off-the-cuff comments would be less serious. His behavior may provide hints about whether the coming Xi era will be more like the Hu decade, which was characterized by cautious, bureaucracy-driven behavior, or will mark a return to an earlier pattern in Chinese politics, when figures such as Mao (from the 1950s until his 1976 death), and Deng (from the late 1970s through the 1980s) boldly placed their stamp on international dealings. Rapprochement and the normalization of ties with the United States, for example, required the decisive personal interventions of these leaders.

Retracing the steps of Xi's first visit harkens back to a less fraught period in U.S.-Chinese ties. Although not conflict free, from today's perspective the relationship of the mid-1980s was something of an adolescent infatuation. In those years, the two countries tentatively began the exchanges that later expanded into deep economic links and extensive flows of cultural products, investment, knowledge, and technology. The fundamental systemic differences, which would later rupture relations after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, were largely papered over at the time. Meanwhile, the profound tensions accompanying China's current rise to prominence were scarcely imaginable.

By presenting Xi as an approachable person with a long personal connection to the United States, the Iowa trip will sound notes that have been absent in the Hu era. Staged photo ops between top leaders and ordinary folks are a media staple in both countries. But cross-national encounters of this kind are rare -- arranged only when it suits the needs of both sides. Obama, on his November 2009 trip to Shanghai and Beijing, for example, was confined to an itinerary that limited his exposure to the Chinese public. Even in this case, Xi's appearances were painstakingly planned in advance and will be private.

For now, Xi's personal views are largely unknown, so the future impact of his experiences and inclinations on the complex machinery of Chinese foreign policy making is as yet a question mark. Still, in the context of a relationship that has recently been buffeted by differences over North Korea, the South China Sea, Syria, currency policy, and trade issues (to name but a few), his feel-good trip to Iowa will underscore to viewers in China and the United States the depth and continuity of the ties that have grown between the two countries since the relatively innocent days when Xi first ventured there.

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