Iowa and China’s Paramount Leader: The Unlikeliest of Unlikely Friendships

All smiles: Xi mingles with Iowans in 2012. Courtesy: Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America

The Gift of Time

A man in a suit walks into the room, his blue tie matching the clothes of the woman standing opposite him. The woman’s name is Sarah Lande, she is 77-years-old and has flown a long way for this meeting—from Iowa to Beijing. When the man sees Sarah, he smiles and presents her with a framed photo from many decades ago, featuring the two of them standing side-by-side in front of a house. He smiles down at the picture, a nostalgic expression on his face. “At that time we had finished breakfast and you were going to bring your daughters to school and work,” he says through a translator. “We said to take a picture at the door.”

April 8 2015 – Celebrating 30 years of friendship. Gary Dvorchak (left) with Xi Jinping (centre) and his wife, Peng Liyuan (third from right). Sarah Lande is fourth from the right. Courtesy: CNBC and Gary Dvorchak

“No gift is necessary,” says Sarah to the translator, shaking her head with a smile. “Just the gift of [your] time and [your] friendship was more than we could ask.”

The man Sarah is addressing, is one of the most powerful men in the world. He is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, the chairman of the Central Military Commission, and has been the president of the People’s Republic of China since 2013. Xi Jinping smiles and takes the photo back from Sarah so that he can show it to his wife, Peng Liyuan. “Over thirty years of friendship,” Xi says, gesturing for his wife to look closely at the photo. “Look at that!”

On a personal level, not much is known about Xi, the man who recently secured an unprecedented third term as the leader of China. He is at the centre of a new era where relations between the United States and China have deteriorated to a point that some describe as the beginnings of a New Cold War.


Xi Jinping’s First Visit to Iowa

In 1985, Xi visited the United States for the first time, travelling up the Mississippi River and even staying on a farm for two nights with the Dvorchaks, a family based in Iowa.

“He was a young man, he was in his early 30s, he was with a delegation, he was a regular person,” Gary Dvorchak told CNBC. Dvorchak was a college student when Xi visited.

In 2015, Dvorchak wrote an article about Xi’s stay, a few months after he and his family were invited to have dinner with China’s leader in Beijing. 

“The conversations were not easy – having to go through a translator,” he wrote. “But both parties learned a lot about each other, both personally and about their cultures and countries.” 

The Dvorchak family now live in Beijing, where Gary Dvorchak is a managing director at a financial consulting group. Their Iowa home has since been purchased by a Chinese investor and transformed into a museum named the “Friendship House,” which thousands of Chinese tourists have visited over the years.

The house is situated in Muscatine, a small town of just over 20,000 people that has maintained connections with China ever since Xi’s visits. There are local Muscatine school students who travel to China on free study tours as a result of support from a Chinese car-making company.

Over the years, Iowa and Hebei, which is a province in China where Xi used to be a communist party official, have developed a long-term relationship. Not only do they exchange student trips, but they have also built connections between business people, and have each received delegations of government officials. For example, Drake University began a “Teach in China” program that has seen hundreds of American students travel to China in order to teach English. Former Iowan governor, Terry Branstad, was among those who met Xi in 1985 – he went on to become US Ambassador to China in 2016. Over the years, Iowa and Hebei became symbols of optimism, offering hope for a future where the US and China could work together.

The photo that Xi gave to Sarah Lande. Xi stands far right. Courtesy: Gary Dvorchak

At the core of this hope was Xi, who by 2012 had risen to become the vice president of China. Yet, even as vice president, he found time to revisit Iowa in February 2012. During this visit, Iowan Rick Kimberley gave Xi a tour of his farm, explaining how his machinery worked and talking about his crops. Xi was so impressed that he “pronounced the farm a model to study.” A replica of Kimberley’s property began to be built in Hebei.

On one of the nights during his 2012 visit, Xi ate with 14 people he had met on his first trip 27 years earlier, dining on beef and corn. “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” he told the table of Iowans. “To me, you are America.”

Xi’s second visit to Iowa culminated in a gala night in his honor. Overall, Xi enjoyed his reunion in Muscatine to such an extent that he quietly invited a delegation of Iowan locals to China for a weeklong trip, during which the guests had lunch with Xi at a state guesthouse usually reserved for government delegation visits.


What comes next?

It’s hard to believe that Xi was once seen as a symbol of hope for US-China relations. This hope was reflected most strongly through the deep-seated affection evident between Iowa and Hebei, at the center of whom was Xi himself. 

But in recent years, times have changed, and relations between the US and China has become a steady conveyor belt of flash points: Former President Donald Trump’s “Tariff Wars,” alleged human rights abuse in Xinjiang, Nancy Pelosi’s provocative visit to Taiwan, sparring over the origins of COVID-19, the “spy balloon” incident during which a suspicious Chinese balloon was found floating in American airspace – these are just a few examples.

This begs the question – will Xi’s legacy in Iowa stand the test of wretched relations between the two countries? Is there still space to find mutual connections between the two countries?

In 2019, Lande told The Economist that she is sceptical about US-China relations. “People are influenced by what they read in the papers, that China is spying on us,” she said.

In the aftermath of Lande’s interview, COVID-19 spread around the world and US-China relations suffered as Trump dubbed COVID-19 the “Kung Flu.” By 2020 the world went into lockdown.

Tourists to the “Friendship House” in Bonnie Drive has dried up and production on Kimberley’s model farm in Hebei has spluttered – symbols of optimism have become dormant. “No one goes there anymore,” a neighbour of the “Friendship House” told the South China Morning Post in 2020. “They gave us the virus.”

However, in the case of Lande, she has not been forgotten by Xi. Last year, she wrote a letter to him, seeking to pass on her memoir as a gift, seemingly clinging onto their decades long friendship. Even though it had been seven years since Xi had presented her with the photo frame, she still received a response.

Xi wrote back: “My fervent hope is that our two countries renew opportunities for our people’s activities to flourish in the future and to bring to the people of both of our nations exciting opportunities to experience each other’s culture and to learn the true value of friendship.”

What happens next between the US and China in the heady world of geopolitics is anyone’s guess. Regardless, a footnote worth watching is whether the unlikely friendship between Iowa and Xi can survive the test of time.

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Michael is a graduate student at Yonsei GSIS specialising in Global Affairs & Policy. Born in Australia, he has studied and worked across the U.S., Africa, and Asia. Michael studied journalism in his undergraduate degree and has accumulated professional experience across media, non-government sector, and academia. His areas of interest include International Security & Foreign Policy as well as East Asia Studies.