(MUSCATINE, Iowa) — To this day, Sarah Lande of Muscatine, Iowa remembers vividly the dinner she hosted for an ambitious young Chinese official 27 years ago.
Now that visitor, Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping, is on a fast track to become China’s top leader, and next week he’s returning to the small Mississippi River town that gave him a warm Midwestern welcome in 1985.
Lande recalls Xi as “curious, organized and comfortable.” He spent two nights in the home of a neighbor, sleeping in a boy’s bedroom “decorated with Star Wars stuff,” dining just one night in her home.
Xi, then a Communist official in the pig-farming province of Hebei, toured Iowa farms and watched a baseball game, as head of a five-person delegation visiting the state, which had been paired with Hebei, as a “sister state.”
Now Iowa governor Terry Branstad, who also met Xi during that 1985 visit, is heralding next week’s return by the Chinese leader as perhaps “even more significant” than the historic visits of Pope John Paul II, in 1979, and Nikita Khrushchev, in 1959.
Branstad told reporters he intends to discuss trade, and not controversial issues such as human rights, when Xi comes to town. “It is my intention to build on the friendship we’ve had for a long period of time.”
Iowa officials say they have forged a tremendous trade relationship with China, increasing exports 1,300 percent during the past decade. Xi, 58, and widely expected to succeed Chinese President Hu Jintao, has stronger personal connections to the United States than any other Chinese leader. Those ties include a daughter who is at Harvard.
Over the course of his career, Xi has met frequently with U.S. business and political officials. But his return to Muscatine will be low-key, to the disappointment of many locals.
“Muscatine wanted to throw a parade,” Lande, Xi’s original dinner host told ABC News. But Chinese leaders insisted on a private dinner with an exclusive guest list: only those Iowans who welcomed Xi when he was an obscure foreign visitor in 1985.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Ashley Fantz, AnneClaire Stapleton and Ed Payne, CNN Newswire
Georgia McCafferty and Junko Ogura, CNN