The nondescript suburban house, once a symbol of warming US-China ties, sits untended and empty in Muscatine, Iowa. Its deck is in need of paint, its foundation mildewing, shutters fading, and decorative flags torn and discoloured.
The modest community of 24,000 people has enjoyed an unlikely role in trans-Pacific diplomacy since the locals realised that a junior Chinese party official who homestayed there in 1985 had gone on to become China’s president.
“This house is emblematic of the US-China relationship. It went from pristine, a showcase, to where it is now, just sitting there. It has the feel of a house slipping,” said Gary Dvorchak, in whose Star Trek-themed bedroom Xi Jinping slept during a two-week visit as part of an agricultural delegation from northern China’s Hebei province.
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Bilateral prospects looked far brighter in 2012 when Xi – then Chinese vice-president and heir apparent to the leadership – returned and made a detour to Iowa on his first US state visit, voicing optimism that cooperation between the two countries was on a “course that cannot be stopped or reversed”.
A Washington Post headline read: “Xi visits Iowa, where the diplomatic equivalent of love is in the air”.
Feeling that love – and imagining Muscatine as a prime tourist attraction for Chinese bused in from Chicago, possibly paired with a casino stop – investor Cheng Lijun bought the house at 2911 Bonnie Drive in 2013 for US$180,000, which was renamed the “Sino-US Friendship House”.
Doubling down, he also invested in a “Sino-US Friendship Centre” in a downtown storefront, took a stake in the city’s best hotel and pledged to lure more Chinese investment. And for a few years, the tours rolled in.
Muscatine’s connection with Xi’s early days lit a fire under Iowa-Hebei cultural exchanges, which flourished until hopes faded with Donald Trump’s election and trade wars, name-calling, mutual chest-thumping and tit-for-tat battles over education, spying and visas frayed relations.
“These last 18 months have been brutal, and it keeps getting worse,” said Daniel Stein, a local banker and chairman of the Muscatine-China Initiatives Committee, formed in 2013 to foster closer links. “It was fun when things were rolling.”
Local enthusiasm for improved relations has waned even as the US mood has soured. Trump’s “America First” policies have taken their toll – as has an increasingly assertive China expanding in the South China Sea, engaging in fights with Japan, India and Taiwan, tightening its grip over Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet and mishandling its early Covid-19 response.
According to Pew Research, 73 per cent of Americans now hold a negative view of China, up 13 percentage points from last year, echoing trends in a dozen other industrialised countries.
“No one wants to visit,” said a Bonnie Drive neighbour who declined to be identified. “They gave us the virus.”
Angie Weikert, office manager at Muscatine’s local history museum, said, “We don’t like the way they treat their people”. Her colleague, Vada Baker, added: “A lot has to do with fear of them buying up so much in Muscatine. I find it a little scary when you have a lot of communists come in and buy up your town.”
Despite hopes of a reset in US-China relations following Joe Biden’s election, Iowans who welcomed Xi here in 1985 and 2012 see few quick fixes. Some suggested both sides should focus on cultural ties and shared interests, including climate change and global health, in hopes of gradually restoring trust.
“It’s like being in a marriage. You have to compromise,” said Luca Berrone, who spent 12 days with Xi’s 1985 delegation as a then-Iowa Development Commission official. “I would certainly hope openness and transparency would benefit both sides.”
Others see hope through agriculture, Iowa’s wheelhouse. “China needs food, we need exports,” said Bill Aossey, who helped arrange one leg of the 1985 trip. “Trade will go on regardless.”
Dvorchak, who moved away after college and now heads an investor relations company in Beijing, said he can see both sides. China’s futuristic cities often belie the nation’s serious rural poverty and Chinese concerns that foreign multinationals could crush nascent Chinese industries, he said. Meanwhile, Americans watch US jobs and industries destroyed by China’s cutthroat pricing.
“My conclusion is very bearish on our ability to have a positive and open trading relationship,” he said. “The Chinese have lots that needs to be done. The Americans don’t want to have all their stuff stolen.”
Xi’s “lao pengyou” – which means old friends – say they are touched by his fond memories of the 1985 visit many had all but forgotten.
“The guy’s normal and human,” said Grant Kimberley, marketing director with the Iowa Soybean Association, whose nine month old infant was photographed with Xi during a visit to the Kimberley family farm in 2012. “Even a Chinese politician likes pictures with a baby.”
But some said they struggle to reconcile the jovial Xi – seen relaxing in a 1985 photo aboard a Mississippi excursion boat – with the austere strongman overseeing a muscular foreign policy that targets US intellectual property. “Thirty-five years go by,” said Berrone, now with an industrial equipment company.
“Things change. People change.”
Sarah Lande, a coordinator for Xi’s 1985 trip, mused: “He doesn’t seem like the same person. When he came back in 2012, he was jolly, even hugged me. I was hoping he would open up because he loved America. But they say he’s not like Deng Xiaoping, more like Mao.
“It seems like President Xi is aggressive in what he wants to do,” she added, sitting in the living room where she hosted him in 2012 as executive director of the Iowa Sister States network, whose partnership with Hebei in 1983 led to Xi’s visit.
A modest barometer of shifting ties is a book commemorating Xi’s 1985 visit that Lande and other volunteers put together. Work on the English language version started in 2014 with great promise. Over time, however, Chinese minders vetoed pictures, text and mention of the 1985 delegation’s interest in US technology.
“Maybe they thought it made them look bad,” she said. “It’s hard to match their mentality.”
Old Friends: The Xi Jinping-Iowa Story eventually came out in 2017 and Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the US, flew in for a ceremony. But, with bilateral relations already fraying, Lande said she felt the project was being promoted rather emptily as a rare positive. Word soon followed that the Chinese version of the book had been killed.
Work has also slowed on a “Sino-US Friendship Demonstration Farm” in Hebei that Xi ordered after visiting the hi-tech Kimberley farm in 2012 outside Des Moines.
“It was supposed to be called a US-China Friendship farm, but I think people are not in the mood for friendship,” Kimberley said of the Chinese project.
Muscatine was already past its economic prime when Xi and his colleagues – referred to as the “five fellows” by locals – descended in 1985. In the 1930s it was known as the “pearl button capital of the world”, producing one-third of all clothing buttons globally before plastic spoiled the party.
Xi was a late addition to the delegation, and almost did not make it to Muscatine. Iowans say they initially sought sister-state relations with Hubei province, but that was taken so they bonded with Hebei. When the Chinese visitors arrived, Berrone needed a weekend stop for them, and chose Muscatine partly because his wife grew up there.
Hotels were full so they arranged homestays. And their budget was limited, prompting a potluck dinner and a borrowed Mississippi River excursion boat. “The approach at our end was to sort of wing it,” Aossey recalled.
What the Iowans lacked in fastidious planning, however, they made up for in warm informality, inadvertently creating a lifelong memory for Xi, who experienced a slice of “real America”.
Only decades later would Berrone learn how apprehensive the delegation was to visit “arch-nemesis” the US. “But that quickly evaporated with the first potlucks” he added, amid introductions to colour TV, La-Z-Boy sofas, American hugging culture and official dinners with “only” four courses.
Dvorchak and his brother were at college, freeing up their bedrooms for Xi and his interpreter and fuelling closer ties with the family. “It was a whole series of dumb-luck events,” Dvorchak said, that would also ultimately propel his career in Beijing.
Some 27 years later, Dvorchak got a call. “My mom said, ‘Do you remember those guys from China?’ We didn’t remember them that well. ‘Well, one of them is becoming president.’”
Locals say that Muscatine’s half-step onto the world stage – and brush with money, power and fame – has fuelled jealousies, squabbling and latecomers jumping on the train. “When it became apparent that Xi was going to be a big leader, everyone wanted a piece of it,” said Aossey.
“There’s always rivalry over who gets the attention,” Stein agreed.
For residents of a small Midwestern town that is 88 per cent white and with an Asian population of less than 1 per cent, the attention has been heady.
Since 2012, the Dvorchaks and other lao pengyou have met privately a few times with Xi and first lady Peng Liyuan, dined at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, appeared in China’s 70th anniversary parade and featured in Chinese news reports. Some have been recognised on Beijing streets. “People bowed down to me,” said Lande.
Many have played their Iowa card in business and diplomatic dealings, prompting one foreign executive in the documentary Iowa in the Heart of China to jokingly refer to an “Iowa mafia”.
“Friendship really is big business” the Xi Jinping-Iowa book states.
Inevitably, some wish they had paid a bit more attention in 1985 to the provincial officials in their new suits. Lande turned down Xi’s request to drive her red convertible. “Today I laugh and wish that I might have given China’s newest president the chance,” she wrote in the book.
Terry Branstad, the governor of Iowa in 1985, only spent a few minutes with the delegation before handing them over to Berrone – but it was still a connection Branstad would leverage three decades later, becoming US ambassador to China before vacating the post in September.
“Governor Branstad basically blew them off, not in bad way – he had lots of visitors,” said Aossey. “In retrospect, he probably would have invited them to his home for a nice dinner.”
Cheng, the Chinese investor who snapped up the house Xi slept in, said he bought it to help improve US-China relations, adding that he was considering fixing it up. Business in Muscatine had not worked out as expected, he acknowledged, as he watched family investments in China soar.
Given the Covid-19 pandemic and strained ties between Washington and Beijing, visitors to the home – mostly Chinese – have slowed to a crawl. It has been months since a Chinese group has studied the photographs of a noticeably thinner Xi, written in the guest book or gawked over the bed ringed by velvet stanchions in “Xi’s bedroom”.
Dvorchak, who says none of the furniture is original, has offered to buy the house and rehabilitate it if he can get a “realistic” price. Cheng – who took “Glad” as his English name because, he said, he wants to be happy every day – said he was mulling the idea as he reflected on US-China ties.
“Maybe now the political situation is not so good,” Cheng said. “I think Americans listen to Trump too much and if people have this in their minds, it’s very difficult to change.
“From a business point of view, it’s not so successful to invest in Iowa,” he added. “But it’s also helped me open my eyes, to know more about Americans and the world.”
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