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Iowa Honors China's Xi Jinping With Gala Dinner


China's Vice President Xi Jinping is hitting all the hotspots on his American tour. He's already been to Washington, D.C. and to the White House. Later today, he heads to Los Angeles. And, of course, yesterday he was in Iowa. He has a personal connection to that state, and Iowa farmers now have reason to be glad he does.

Iowa Public Radio's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Xi Jinping first encountered America through the eyes of Iowans. In 1985, he was just a mid-level Communist Party official on an exchange trip to the Hawkeye State. At a gala dinner last night, Vice President Xi Jinping spoke through an interpreter as he fondly remembered his first visit to America.

VICE PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Through translator) During that trip, I had my first sighting of the Mississippi River. As a young boy, I had read the novels of Mark Twain, and I had long wanted to see for myself the picturesque scenery of the Mississippi.

DIRKS: He saw the shores of the Mississippi from Muscatine, where he stayed with a local family. Yesterday, he went back. Joan Axel was one of the planners of the 1985 trip, and she sat down with the future leader of China for a cup of tea.

JOAN AXEL: He remembered every picnic. He remembered the home in which he stayed, what the room looked like - it was some young teenager's room. He reminded us that we were the first Americans he ever met.

DIRKS: For Axel, the visit was personal. But for protesters in Muscatine and the state capitol, Des Moines, it was political.


DIRKS: Hundreds of Tibetan-American demonstrators bussed in from across the Midwest. They were protesting China's control of their homeland. Tenzin Khando is from Minneapolis. She says that protesting is a right that's denied to Tibetans.

TENZIN KHANDO: The fact that we are able to protest, we are able to unfurl our banners, we are able to hoist our own flag in his presence is huge.

DIRKS: But under the golden dome of the statehouse, where the formal dinner was held, the fanfare drowned out the chants. Inside, Governor Terry Branstad toasted the vice president, making much of a longstanding relationship.

GOVERNOR TERRY BRANSTAD: And so, many Iowans are pleased that a man that we befriended, those many years ago, has risen to such an important position of prominence and respect in the great nation of China.

DIRKS: Few are as pleased as Branstad, who hopes that old friendships will bring big business. Yesterday, Chinese businessmen in the delegation signed a $4.3 billion deal to buy soybeans from local farms. So the Chinese vice president and the Iowan governor clinks their glasses to friendship, and the money to be made from it.

For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks in Des Moines. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks
Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.