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MUSCATINE – News agencies across the world carried photos recently of the historic first meeting between new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi is one of the most powerful men in the world, and yet a group of Muscatine residents fondly refer to him as one of their “old friends.”

For, indeed, that’s what Xi is to them. They are assured that the feeling is mutual.

The city of Muscatine and its people have enjoyed a special relationship with the Chinese leader, and to his country, since he visited the community with a delegation of young people in 1985.

Xi was the leader of the delegation of five representatives who came to Iowa from its Sister State of Hebei Province to study agricultural methods. Little did the Muscatine community realize at the time that it was hosting the future president of China.

Sarah Lande was one of the coordinators of that 1985 visit, witnessing these remarks by Xi to Muscatine residents: “The impression of the U.S. is very good, I think. We have seen a lot of your advanced technology. The people here are very warm and very friendly. They, too, have left us a very deep impression.”

A smiling Xi is pictured in Muscatine Journal clips receiving a key to the city then.

The visit, which included overnight stays for the guests in several Muscatine homes, tours of farms, industrial plants and a boat ride on the Mississippi River, left such an impression on Xi Jinping that he returned to the community, this time as vice president of China, in 2012.

“This is the Xi Jinping room,” Lande told visitors from the Muscatine Journal as she showed them into her living room.

And it truly is, for that’s where an hour-long reception for Xi was held in 2012. Today, the room painted in a deep blue is full of artwork and mementoes of Lande’s connections to China. A photo from the reception takes center stage on the fireplace mantel.

“Old friends shared memories of 1985,” Lande said of the gathering in her home that drew international media attention to Muscatine.

Xi reciprocated just three months later, inviting his Muscatine friends to China for a trip that culminated in a banquet in their honor. Commemorative plates, featuring photos of the group, sit on a grand piano in Lande’s home.

Lande said she was privileged to sit between Xi and his wife at the banquet.

“Mrs. Jinping said to me, ‘I just had to meet these old friends,'“ Lande said.

The friendship has benefited Muscatine in numerous ways, from cultural and educational exchanges to opportunities for students to travel to China in a program that pays their expenses, to a heightened interest in business relationships between citizens of the two countries.

Long before Muscatine forged a relationship to China, the community was well-connected in international circles through the global work of The Stanley Foundation, which marked its 60th anniversary in December, continuing its mission of “creating a world in which there is a secure peace with freedom and justice.”

The foundation has been supportive of the Muscatine-China connection, and assisted particularly during Xi’s 2012 visit with the intense media interest, dealing with the U.S. State Department and with protocol issues, said Keith Porter, president and CEO of The Stanley Foundation.

“I really feel like the U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important relationships in the world,” Porter said.

He noted that many problems cannot be solved by dealing with one country alone, and cited the three specific areas for which The Stanley Foundation advocates. As he described them in writing about the 60th anniversary of the foundation: “We advocate for the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities, avoiding the use of nuclear weapons in an era of rapid technological development, and efforts to keep global temperature increases to just 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.”

Porter noted that the U.S.-China agreement on climate change preceded the historic Paris accord and set the example for other countries.

And while The Stanley Foundation’s work goes on throughout the world, as a resident of Muscatine, Porter acknowledged the many arts and cultural benefits the community has seen because of its friendship with China’s president.

A recent example was the free concert in early February by the Shaanxi Province Song and Dance Theater National Orchestra. About 1,200 people attended the performance at Calvary Church, including Gov. Terry Branstad, President Donald Trump’s nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to China, and Hong Lei, Chinese Consul General in Chicago. The performers were hosted in Muscatine homes during their stay.

Porter said a community the size of Muscatine would not come to the attention of the Chinese Consul General were it not for its relationship with Xi Jinping.

Former Muscatine Mayor DeWayne Hopkins, who was at the 2012 reception in the Lande home and has visited China several times, reflected on what the community’s connection to China and its president means.

“I’m just a simple guy born and raised in Muscatine, and when the vice president of China pays a visit to your hometown, you know it’s a big thing and it’s going to lead to big things,” he said.

Sean Leary contributed to this story.

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