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Small-town welcome, world concerns for China's Xi
by Staff Writers
Muscatine, Iowa (AFP) Feb 15, 2012

Far from the global centers of power, the Iowa town of Muscatine gave a Midwestern-style welcome Wednesday to China's likely next leader, with residents offering a nuanced view of Beijing's rise.

One restaurant in this Mississippi River city of 23,000 fried up a special Xi Jinping burrito in honor of the Chinese vice president's visit, while chains such as McDonald's and Taco John's flashed greetings on their outdoor signs.

Xi, who is tipped to lead China for a decade starting next year, was paying a quick visit to Muscatine to sip tea at a Victorian house with Iowans he met in 1985 when he was a low-ranking farm official on an exchange.

"People are pretty excited to have a world leader come here. It's not every day that someone of that stature comes to a town our size," said Chris Steinbach, editor of the Muscatine Journal.

Some experts believe that Xi -- who will also visit the capital Des Moines -- was hoping that the state's "Iowa Nice" image would rub off on him, softening his image both to Americans and to Chinese television viewers.

But while Iowa's governor has likened the visit to that of a pope, Muscatine -- whose major industries include furniture and food processing -- is more than a small town enjoying its brief moment in the international spotlight.

Numerous residents said that they or their friends have been to China on business, sometimes on extended trips. The local high school, like a growing number in the United States, offers courses in Mandarin.

Iowa's exports to China shot up by nearly 1,300 percent from 2000-2010, led by the Chinese middle class's demand for pork, soybeans and other Iowa produce. But the manufacturing sector, while better off than in some states, has felt the pressure of China's emergence as the superpower in inexpensive exports.

"What's important is to preserve free and open trade, and politics often get in the way of that. So this visit is very consequential as opposed to in Washington where it's political theater," said Alan Palmer, a consulting engineer having a lunch of chili in downtown Muscatine.

Polls have consistently shown that most Americans see China as friendly, despite frequent criticism from Washington of Beijing's policies on issues including the value of its currency, which critics say is artificially low.

A recent survey conducted by Gallup found that nearly three-quarters of Americans believed it was important to develop strong relations with the rapidly growing Asian power.

But several residents in Muscatine said that they remained uneasy with aspects of China's rise, including its labor conditions and its human rights record.

"People often talk about China's economy but they forget what it is. It's communist and has more than a billion people and many of them are still poor," said John Morgan, who was visiting Muscatine for business from Cedar Rapids.

"On human rights issues, of course that's their business. But we can also say, hey, let them have a little girl without a penalty," Morgan said, referring to Chinese penalties for having more than one child in some areas.

Randy Richmond, an artist whose daughter is studying Mandarin at Muscatine High School, said that many Americans had a limited understanding of China and did not consider its thousands of years of history.

"People probably look at China with the Tibet issue and human rights, that type of thing. I hope people take this as an opportunity to learn all that's going on," he said, referring to Xi's visit.

"Certainly there are things they do that I don't agree with, but there is always hope for change," he said. "It's important that we understand China as, economically, it affects all the rest of the world."

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China leader-in-waiting in Iowa 'homecoming'
Muscatine, Iowa (AFP) Feb 15, 2012 - Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday toured an Iowa town he visited decades ago in a stage-managed appearance meant to show a gentler side of the Asian power's likely next leader.

Under cold rain, Xi's motorcade pulled up to a Victorian home in bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in Muscatine, Iowa, to sip tea with a selected group of residents who remembered him from his 1985 trip.

As police sealed the residential block, rival groups staged small but noisy demonstrations within earshot of Xi.

Tibetans shouted "Shame on China!" while Chinese students waving US and Chinese flags on the other side of the street replied with chants of "We Love China!"

Demonstrators from the Falungong, the spiritual movement banned in China, silently held banners in another corner. Police kept a careful watch and prevented the Tibetan and Chinese protesters from crossing paths.

Xi's visit was carefully controlled with only a handful of reporters and cameras allowed inside the house. He later heads to Iowa's capital Des Moines for a formal dinner with Governor Terry Branstad.

Xi journeyed to Muscatine in 1985 when he was a low-ranking official dealing with agricultural feed. By all accounts, Xi enjoyed his visit, with Branstad telling AFP that Xi had saved his printed itinerary in his Beijing office.

Xi, who is expected to become president next year, heads on Thursday to Los Angeles as part of the trip which experts say is designed to lighten his image both in the United States and with Chinese television viewers.

Speaking earlier Wednesday in Washington, Xi heralded a "new historical starting point" for ties with the United States after his meeting a day earlier with President Barack Obama.


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