Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to San Francisco on Tuesday for a high-stakes summit with his U.S. counterpart, Joe Biden, seeking the way forward for the strained ties between the world’s two largest economies.
It is a coincidence that San Francisco was the first stop of Xi’s maiden trip to the United States decades ago. In the spring of 1985, Xi, at that time a county leader of Zhengding in China’s northern province of Hebei, took his initial steps onto U.S. soil.
Much like any other city visitor, Xi, a young man in his early thirties, had his picture taken with the Golden Gate Bridge.
That trip helped Xi get acquainted with the United States, and from then on, he fostered friendships with American people. The enduring strength of such amicable bonds has always served as a wellspring of vitality for bilateral ties, both in favorable and in challenging times.
“TO ME, YOU ARE AMERICA”
“The Chinese and American people are both great people, and our friendship is not only a valuable asset but also an important foundation for the development of bilateral relations,” Xi wrote in a letter to Sarah Lande, author of a memoir entitled “‘Old Friends’: The Xi Jinping-Iowa Story,” in 2022.
Lande, a Muscatine resident working at Iowa’s “sister state” organization, helped coordinate Xi’s visit in 1985. First impressions always matter. Xi’s opinion of the American people has much to do with his first visit to the United States.
Xi led a five-person agricultural delegation to look into farm technology in Muscatine, in the midwestern state of Iowa, a leader in the country’s agricultural production of corn and soybeans.
“He had a smile that would not stop,” Lande recalled. “He was curious about everything and asked questions about everything.”
The itinerary in Muscatine included tours to a corn processing plant, a hog farm and a vegetable farm; interviews with local media; and even a boat excursion on the Mississippi River. A homestay was also arranged for both sides to better understand each other’s different cultures, Lande said.
Thomas and Eleanor Dvorchak played host to Xi. He slept in the Star Trek-themed bedroom belonging to the Dvorchaks’ son, Gary, who was away at university.
“I thought he was a very nice, focused, polite man,” Eleanor Dvorchak once recounted. According to her, Xi was among the first Chinese friends they got to know.
“There have been some wonderful exchanges between our country and China that have really brought people together in a way that sometimes does not happen in the political arena,” said Ricki Garrett, president and CEO of Sister Cities International, a Washington-based non-profit organization.
Xi and his old American friends reunited in Iowa after 27 years in 2012 when he visited the United States as vice president of China.
Despite a tight schedule, Xi made it to the reunion in Lande’s house on a snowy day. They gathered around a couch in the living room and reminisced about their joyful memories. The hour-long meeting was filled with laughter. Thomas Dvorchak had a deep impression of the Chinese alcohol that Xi gave to him as a gift. “It was the strongest liquor that I ever had,” he told Xi.
Some in the crowd, as Lande recalled, popped up a question for Xi: “Why are you coming to Iowa?”
“You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” Xi told his Iowa friends. “To me, you are America.”
Xi never forgets his American friends and believes that people hold the key to state-to-state relations. Over the years, notwithstanding setbacks in China-U.S. relations, Xi has consistently championed people-to-people exchanges with the United States. He wrote letters to Americans and took part in events to help foster friendship.
The most effective way to transform shared opportunities and needs into active collaboration and strong relationships is through direct person-to-person interactions, said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of the Kuhn Foundation and a long-time China expert. “I can think of no better prescription to start to cure the illness in U.S.-China relations.”
LOCAL BONDS AS GLUE
Rewinding to a time when China started its reform and opening-up, Chinese and U.S. cities, provinces and states began building amicable ties around 1979. Hebei and Iowa signed their sister-state relationship in 1983, which led to Xi’s 1985 trip.
Over the years, Xi himself has been persistently promoting bilateral ties at the local level. During a meeting in Beijing with visiting California Governor Gavin Newsom last month, Xi happily recalled his California trip decades ago.
In his 2012 trip to the United States, Xi, apart from reuniting with old friends, also met “new friends.” He and Biden, then U.S. vice president, met with governors from China and the United States in California.
During a speech, Xi said that he noticed Hawaii Governor Neil Abercrombie had a box of chocolates with him, and many Chinese tourists returning from Hawaii would bring back chocolates.
Abercrombie took the box of chocolate-covered nuts and suggested that Xi try them. Biden, seated nearby, promptly grabbed one and placed it in his mouth. Xi sampled the chocolates after concluding his speech and then passed the box to the governors present, inviting them to share the treats.
More delightful moments unfolded when Xi showed up to watch an NBA game. The Lakers were facing off against the Suns, and Xi took his seat at the arena. He remained remarkably focused on the game.
Then Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sat beside Xi. The two discussed the highlights of the game with each other, laughing from time to time.
The bonds between Chinese cities and provinces and those in the United States have grown over the decades. A total of 284 pairs of sister provinces/states and sister cities have been formed since the first pair was set in 1979. Xi described those special bonds as “important platforms for deepening friendship and achieving win-win cooperation.”
“If we look at the 40-plus years of U.S.-China relations,” Denis Simon, distinguished fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies, “the connections between universities, think tanks, cultural organizations, art … have become an integral part of this relationship.”
“They’ve become part of the glue … that has held the two countries together, even in times of difficult political situations,” Simon said.
HOPE IN THE FUTURE
Shauntel Berry, a student at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington State, encountered Xi in 2015 at the school’s auditorium, leading to an extraordinary experience she never would have imagined.
Xi, with his wife Peng Liyuan, visited Lincoln High School that year during his first state visit to the United States as Chinese president.
Berry recalled that the president, collar open and without a tie, presented gifts to the students, including books on China and a ping-pong table. Xi also received gifts from the students: a football and a personalized jersey bearing his name and the “No. 1” on the back.
But it was what Xi offered during the following speech that would change the life of Berry and many of her fellow students: 100 students from the school would be invited to visit China. “Through travel, you will know China better, and hopefully, you will like China,” Xi said.
In 2016, Berry visited China as one of those invited. “Traveling to China made me realize we’re all living different lives, and there’s more than one way to live. I took notice of the values and the normality of respect of the Chinese people, a shock compared to here in the States.”
Xi put his faith in youth. He once voiced the hope that more youth from China and the United States can get to know each other, and work hand in hand as a new generation of ambassadors of friendship to inject fresh impetus into the development of China-U.S. relations.
“President Xi is a strong believer in educational exchanges,” said the principal of Lincoln High School Patrick Erwin, who accompanied Xi on the 2015 school tour.
In the year 2021, a time when the China-U.S. relationship was dragged to a low ebb, Erwin wrote a letter to Xi, telling him about the exchanges between his school and China over the past years and how the educational partnership is important to his students.
“It is a life-changing experience, both in terms of the travel itself and the exposure to the culture, the history and the Chinese people,” Erwin said. “My students all want to go back to China and study in China.”
Young people believe in the future, said Wang Dong, executive director of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding at Peking University. “Xi has showcased his great vision for China-U.S. relations and his expectations for the friendship between the two nations.”
“It is hoped that his trip back to San Francisco could be a step forward for China-U.S. relations,” Wang said.