Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rural values, agriculture front and center for Iowa residents welcoming back Xi Jinping

The story of Xi Jinping's visit to Muscatine, Iowa, has been in the news for the past few days. Xi, now the heir apparent to the Chinese presidency, was a mid-level Community party official on an agricultural trade mission in 1985 when he stayed with a family in Muscatine, population 22, 886.

With a population of 42,745, Muscatine County, is micropolitan, but reports of Xi's visit tend to present the place as representative of the American heartland, focusing on agriculture and what might be considered rural culture. Here are some representative lines from the New York Times story by Kirk Johnson.
Chinese officials have said the trip flowed from Mr. Xi's desire to relive a pleasant period form his past and to reconnect with Iowa farmers and other residents he came to know a quarter-century ago. It was also clearly a propaganda event at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over a raft of issues...

The tightly choreographed moment was intended to show audiences in the United States and in China the deep connection that presumed future Chinese president, now 58, feels with the people of the American heartland.
The visit also draws attention to Chinese dependence on U.S. food exports. Iowa is the nation's top exporter of soybeans.

Johnson had a heyday with rural culture angles on the story, including this quote from Mark Twain, who once lived in Muscatine and wrote for the Muscatine Journal: "When opportunity knocks, shake it by the lapels until the coins fall out."

Comments from Muscatine's mayor and others who hosted Xi's visit acknowledged that the visit creates economic opportunity--and certain bragging rights grounded in what might be thought of as rural culture--for the city. Mayor DeWayne Hopkins stated:
We've displayed to this world leader our work ethic, No. 1, and our value for friendship; that's No. 2. If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here--and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing--then that's a plus.
The mayor took the opportunity of an interview on NPR to make a similar pitch about Muscatine, depicting it as featuring "a lot of manufacturing." Interesting that in this age of midwest population loss, Mayor Hopkins spoke not only of attracting business, but also of attracting people.

Johnson offered this summary of the musings of other Muscatine residents on Xi's visit:
Some of the people who played host to Mr. Xi in the 1980s, sounding like polished diplomats, said the lasting value of the visit was the relationship that would be built for Iowa's sake or Muscatine's or maybe for rural America in general.
Of course, bolstering rural America in any sustained way is a lot to put on any individual's shoulders, even those of the next premier of China.

The story also refers to Xi's background and rural China, with this reference to Eleanor Dvorchak, whose family hosted Xi 27 years ago.
[Dvorchak] had grown up reading Pearl S. Buck novels about the travails in rural China, and now here was a visitor, perhaps from that same hard place.
More coverage of Xi's visit to Iowa is here and here.

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