China and the World

Winning Iowa

China’s next leader goes back to Muscatine

Winning Iowa

Xi works the room

NBA executives probably cannot believe their luck. In the space of a week they’ve had two massive slam dunks with the China audience. The first was courtesy of Jeremy Lin, and the ‘Lin-sanity’ provoked by his performances for the New York Knicks (see Red Star). The second came on news that China’s next leader, Xi Jinping will also make history by watching an LA Lakers match. Famous courtside fans like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson will have to make room…

In fact, the vice premier will be the first senior Chinese leader to attend an NBA game and the image of Xi at the basketball could prove iconic in much the same way that the shot of Deng Xiaoping wearing a cowboy hat once grabbed the popular imagination.

More conventionally, Xi’s tour to Washington started out this week with an address to Congressional and business leaders in which he described the relationship between the two countries as “an unstoppable river that keeps surging ahead”.

Rhetorical flourishes exhausted, Xi also said the interests of China and the US were intertwined and called for greater strategic trust, reports the BBC.

Well Xi might, for these are sensitive times for Sino-US ties. Military and economic friction has been increasing (as chronicled regularly in WiC). For a number of American politicians China is the default villain in world affairs.

Looking for an example? Take Senate candidate Pete Hoekstra’s recent TV ad during the Super Bowl, which featured a Chinese girl in a paddyfield. In the commercial, Hoekstra attacked his Democrat opponent Debbie Stabenow, with the Chinese girl saying in broken English: “Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spenditnow. Debbie spends so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy gets very weak. Our’s gets very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow.”

All rather ridiculous stuff, but the fact that the ad was run at all shows that China needs to work on its image with a broad swathe of American society.

A large part of Xi’s trip seems to be about doing just that.

Americans got their first look at China’s next president as he posed for photos with President Obama at the White House. And if they gleaned nothing else, they’ll have noted body language a lot more relaxed than that of current leader, Hu Jintao. Unlike Hu, Xi even gives the impression that he can smile and laugh without scripting.

The trip also gave the US media a chance to discuss Xi’s background. He’s the son of Xi Zhongxun, one of the revolutionaries who helped Mao come to power. But as the Washington Post pointed out, this is no simple story of privilege. In 1962 Mao purged Xi’s father, who spent the next 16 years “in disgrace”. At 15 Xi was sent to Liangjiahe, a village in central China, ‘to learn from the peasants’. The LA Times spoke with a local farmer who recalled that the boy used a bucket for a toilet, survived on a porridge diet, and even lived for seven years in a semi-cave.

“He ate bitterness like the rest of us,” the farmer recalled.

Xi may have slept in a cave in Liangjiahe but his sleeping arrangements were also a source of interest for journalists when they researched his previous visit to Iowa in 1985. On that occasion he was part of a Hebei farming delegation, which stayed with local families in the town of Muscatine. The 31 year-old visitor slept in a child’s bedroom featuring Star Wars wallpaper and Star Trek toys. He got a slice of real American life, says Eleanor Dvorchak, who put him up.

Brief though his 1985 trip was, it probably gave Xi more insight into the American heartland than any Chinese leader before him. That’s also likely why he insisted that Muscatine be on his itinerary for his current trip. In a smart PR move he even spent an hour in the living room of the Landes family, another of those he stayed with.

“To me, you are America,” he told his hosts.

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