You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Iowa homecoming awaits Chinese leader

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2012

The last time China's next president visited the United States, he bunked in the spare bedroom of a small-town Iowa home, replete with football wallpaper, a window's view of an old iron basketball hoop and "Star Wars" figurines on the dresser.

It was a 1985 slice of Americana that must have felt exotic to Xi Jinping, then a middle-level bureaucrat sent to the Hawkeye State to see whether its hog-raising techniques could be imported to his country.

The experience left an impression on Mr. Xi, who now is vice president of the world's most populous nation.

When Xi Jinping returns to the United States this week, he will do so as the man slated to take over China's presidency next year. He will meet with President Obama on Tuesday.

The question is whether the 58-year-old Mr. Xi, whose style differs markedly from that of President Hu Jintao, will signal a new era of U.S.-Chinese relations.

If his itinerary provides any clue, the answer may be yes: After being received at the White House, Mr. Xi will head to Iowa to visit the families who hosted him 27 years ago.

While Mr. Xi clearly has an affinity for certain things American (his daughter is an undergraduate student at Harvard University), his decision to visit Iowa during a high-level diplomatic trip hints at rare emotion for one whose nation's leaders are notoriously reserved.

It might symbolize an openness for the American way of doing things. Or it could be just propaganda.

As with much of Chinese foreign policy, the truth is probably a bit of both, say analysts, who compare Mr. Xi to former President Deng Xiaoping.

"Xi Jinping is a 'Dengist,' " said Michael J. Green, an Asia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served on the National Security Council during the early 2000s. "He essentially, I think, follows the Deng Xiaoping line of pragmatism."

Deng departed from diplomatic business as usual on a U.S. visit in 1979, when he donned a cowboy hat and went to a rodeo. Whether the gesture had some deeper meaning is anyone's guess.

Deng later became known for the economic policies that opened communist China to foreign investment and the global capitalist marketplace. He also oversaw human rights atrocities in China, including the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

As the Obama administration searches for clues from Mr. Xi's background, a recent Congressional Research Service report noted that he spent 17 years "rising through the ranks of economically dynamic Fujian Province." He also paid his political dues from 2002 to 2007 in "Zhejiang Province, an export hub known for its freewheeling private businesses."

Such experiences could come in handy for Mr. Xi's future efforts to maintain Chinese economic growth in an era of global market insecurity.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Wall Street Journal last year that Mr. Xi is "more assertive than Hu Jintao."

"When he enters a room, you know there's a significant presence here," Mr. Kissinger said.

How that affects his approach to the major issues facing China, including ethnic unrest in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet as well as the growing social inequalities and potential food and water shortages for the nation's 1.3 billion people, is not known.

The extent to which he may expand or pull back from China's recently intensified crackdown on dissidents also remains to be seen.

Answers to such questions, along with Mr. Xi's take on Chinese ambitions for military supremacy in Southeast Asia, won't become clear during his visit, said Kerry Brown, an Asia specialist at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think tank.

The goal, said Mr. Brown, is for "American leaders to get to know Mr. Xi, to build the kind of relationship where, when there is a massive disaster on a Sunday night, he can pick up the phone to the American president and the American president can pick up the phone to him."

But comments by Mr. Xi suggest his assertiveness may sway how China deals with the rest of the world.

"Some bored foreigners have nothing better to do than point their fingers at our affairs," Mr. Xi said in 2009, as Western leaders pressured Beijing to take a more responsible role in the global economic crisis.

"China does not, first, export revolution, second, export poverty and hunger, and third, cause unnecessary trouble," he said. "What else is there to say?"

Analysts say such brashness should not overshadow his charisma, as they point to Mr. Xi's upbringing as a source of the success he has had as a Communist Party boss.

His father was close with former revolutionary and dictator Mao Zedong, a distinction that makes Mr. Xi a "princeling" in Chinese political parlance.

But unlike that of other children of former leaders, Mr. Xi's past has a twist: Mao purged Mr. Xi's father from politics during the early 1960s and sent him to prison, condemning the Xi family to hardship. As a boy, Mr. Xi spent several years struggling in the ragged hills of northern China. His luck changed when Deng released his father. In the late 1970s, he earned a degree in chemistry from Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University.

After a brief stint as a general's aide with the People's Liberation Army, he was sent into politics in a heavily agricultural zone outside Beijing - a move that eventually found him in charge of a farming delegation headed for Iowa.

The trip was a collaboration with Iowa political and business leaders who set up the Chinese with local families.

"Someone asked me if we had chopsticks, and I thought, 'My goodness, no, and where would I have ever gotten them in Muscatine, Iowa, at the time? " said Eleanor Dvorchak, who hosted Mr. Xi in the bedroom left empty by her two sons who were off at college.

Mrs. Dvorchak called it "quite an honor" to be one of a small group with whom Mr. Xi has requested to meet this week.

"He was a very polite and very serious young man, and he knew what his job was here at the time and was totally devoted to it," she said.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.