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China's president-in-waiting Xi Jinping returns to Iowa

Kevin E. Schmidt / Pool via AFP - Getty Images

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping talks with local people in the home of Roger and Sarah Lande in Muscatine, Iowa.

MUSCATINE, Iowa – A young, blue-eyed Sarah Lande never thought the polite young man from China, Xi Jinping, sitting at her dining room table in 1985 would go on to become the next president of China. She simply thought of him as a gentle soul with genuine interest in her family’s Iowa roots, sharing a home-cooked meal of pork, beef and locally grown corn.

Wednesday afternoon 27 years later – he returned to the same three-story home on Muscatine’s 2nd Street and walked through the same door, but this time as China’s next president.

“Coming here is really like coming back to home,” Xi told a packed living room of familiar faces he met on his 1985 visit. “You can’t even imagine what a deep impression I had from my visit 27 years ago … because you were the first group of Americans that I came into contact with.”

“Everything was very new and fresh,” he added.

Xi’s visit is a rare glimpse at an ascending leader in China’s typically opaque and rigid Communist Party. No high-ranking official has had such direct and personal ties to the United States.

'Old friends'
Xi first visited Muscatine as a provincial official from Iowa’s sister state of Hebei almost three decades ago. Leading a delegation of four other local officials on an educational trip primarily focused on agriculture, Xi and his colleagues toured local farms and businesses as part of an exchange that began with Iowans going to Hebei in 1984. He met then- and current Iowa governor Terry Branstad and more than a dozen other Iowans in Muscatine he now calls his “old friends.”

The cover of the Muscatine Journal showing the young Xi Jinping on his visit to Iowa in 1985. The headline on the story says, "Chinese visitors receive warm welcome" and there is photo of the town mayor handing Xi the keys to the city.

Lande, who was one of the organizers of his trip, was constrained by a limited budget so she resorted to old-fashioned hospitality of home-stays and meals at home. Xi spent two nights with the Dvorchaks a few blocks away from the Landes. There, Xi slept in their son’s bedroom, decorated with Star Trek figurines and wall paper.

“I wish I had updated the room,” Eleanor Dvorchak, 72, recalled. “But he was so congenial, anything would have been fine.”

One thing was for certain, no one ever expected the quiet Xi to become China’s next leader.

“Sometimes we are just in awe, that he is going to be the next leader,” Lande told NBC News in an interview ahead of the reunion.

“Nobody knew,” Dvorchak added afterward. “At the time, I was impressed what a hard worker he was.”

Clearly, Muscatine also left an indelible impression on Xi. Upon invitation back to Iowa by Governor Branstad, he requested to reunite with each person he met in Muscatine.

Small-town charm
Muscatine is the perfect, if coincidental, background to counterbalance Xi’s highly-scripted meetings in Washington. Aesthetically frozen in the 1950s, the town oozes both old-fashioned small-town charm and the harsh reality of post-industrial American economy. Many storefronts and warehouses stand empty in a place that once called itself the "pearl button capital of the world." Meanwhile, China has opened and expanded exponentially since 1985, into a roaring economy.

Kevin E. Schmidt / The Quad City Times via AP

Six-year-old Lucy Lande waits for the arrival of Xi Jinping at the home of her grandparents, Roger and Sarah Lande.

But it was friendship, not jobs, that was the complete focus of today’s reunion. Fond memories about American movies and a tour of the Mississippi river took up most of the conversation.

When Lande recalled Xi seeing puppies play in a Muscatine backyard in 1985, Xi replied, “We love puppies. We have two puppies as pets now.”

However, Xi has not always been entirely friendly to foreigners. According to a diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks last year, the soon-to-be-president lashed out against countries who have criticized China's human rights and trade record.

"There are some well-fed foreigners who have nothing better to do than point fingers at our affairs," Xi said at a lunch meeting in Mexico in February of 2009.

Ultimately, Muscatine citizens and leaders alike had high hopes of leaving another positive memory with Xi that would, yet again, last far beyond his time in Iowa.

“I hope we can really express the warmth and you know we’re proud of him and we look forward to really enhanced relations between China and America,” Lande told NBC News. “Let it start in the heartland.”

“So many Iowans are pleased that a man we befriended those many years ago, has risen to such a position of prominence and respect in the great nation of China,” Gov.  Branstad said in a toast to Xi tonight at an official dinner in Des Moines.

Others hope Vice President Xi’s two visits here will help push US-China relations in a more positive direction, as diplomatic tensions have escalated over trade and currency valuation.

Hope for improved relations
During the tea at her home, Lande told Xi that she hopes the US and China will “have a surge in the amount of visas that they issue, so we can have more international exchange and more trade, as we’re having here between Iowa and China.”

Others in Muscatine are hoping to contribute to leaving a warmer legacy between the two countries.

“If you meet people and treat them the way you would want them to treat you, then good things can come from that,” said Steinbach of the Muscatine Journal.

“I hope that's the case for Muscatine and that Mr. Xi would take that back to China with him and remember that in any dealings he has in the years to come with the United States,” Steinbach added. “There are people here who are honest and hardworking that you'd I'm sure find in parts in China and anywhere else.”

Xi’s stop through the Midwest also put Muscatine on the map like never before. The anticipation of Xi’s visit took the town by storm. The local paper welcomed Xi on its front page and reproduced the articles and photos that appeared in a 1985 edition, hailing his visit as a young official.

At the local high school, a classroom of students dutifully practiced their "ni hao’s” and "xiexie's" ahead of Xi’s arrival.

Jenny Juehring has been learning Mandarin for three years and today was selected to stand on the front porch of Lande’s to greet Xi and show off her language skills.

“I think he's very cool, that'd he come back here, to a place that's so small and pretty insignificant, for such a small town,” Juehring told NBC News.

Ho Xuefeng, a waiter at a Thai restaurant downtown, took the day off of work to watch Xi’s motorcade whiz by.

“I’m originally from Shenyang,” Ho told NBC News. “To see someone like him come to this little town is rare.”

The town’s McDonald’s posted a message on their marquee for their Chinese visitor: “Welcome back, Vice President Xi Jinping,” perhaps lending a new local meaning to “billions and billions served.”

Inside, line cooks and high school-aged cashiers peered out the drive-through windows hoping to catch a glimpse of Xi’s motorcade whizzing by.

Some protests
But the trip wasn’t without minor hiccups. Free Tibet supporters lined the block leading to the home where Xi was hosted for tea and waved Tibetan flags, often chanting opposite equally animated college students from mainland China responding with “We love China!” across the street.

Just minutes before Xi’s arrival at the Lande home, security officials rerouted the vice president’s motorcade to arrive on the other side of the house, where the Tibetan flags were far from sight.

Agile protestors questioning the Chinese government’s human rights record slipped past police barricades, waving signs that read “Stop Prosecuting the Falun Gong” in English and Mandarin. They were quickly ushered away by Iowa State Troopers and a Chinese government representative.

But overall, the visit was exactly how many in Muscatine hoped it would be: friendly, smooth and memorable.

As Xi departed the Lande home in the evening rain, he peered through the window of his bullet-proof limousine, waving and waving to his “old friends” until his motorcade turned the corner.

Clad in a red silk jacket emblazoned with Chinese characters, Lande waved after the polite young man who came over for that pork and corn dinner 27 years ago.

“Wow, I just can’t believe it!” she said.