With the news that Iowa Governor Terry Branstad has been tapped to be the next United States Ambassador to China, Muscatine’s relationship with China and Chinese President Xi Jinping have been brought back to the forefront of international diplomacy. Sarah Lande has been a figure in this story since its beginning.
In 1983, Branstad signed a sister-state relationship with Hebei province in China. In 1984, former Iowa Governor Robert Ray announced that he and his wife, Billie, would be taking a friendship trip. Ray had traveled to China previously and had met with Xi Jinping’s father, who was a political leader in China.
Lande, along with Joni Axel, was part of the friendship tour in 1984. “When we landed in China early spring of 1984, there were no cars and everyone was in a Mao suit. But we were curious about the culture and their government. They were hard-working people who were entrepreneurial,” said Lande.
This curiosity was reciprocated, and in 1985, an agricultural delegation came back to the United States. A last-minute addition to this delegation was Xi Jinping. “They were wanting to learn farming techniques from us and learn more about our agriculture,” said Lande. Lande worked with the Iowa Sister States for ten years. “The Hebei province is very similar to the Midwest in climate and agriculture development. They care so much about their families and care so much about their education,” Lande said. “Young people in China really focus on their education.” The 1985 delegation spent a great amount of time educating them on agriculture development.
The generosity that was shown by Lande and her husband, Roger, and Xi’s host family, Elanor and Thomas Dvrochak, resonated with the young diplomat. In an interview with the New Yorker in 2012, Xi joked that he “received the gift of popcorn in Muscatine.” Xi stayed in a room adorned with Star Wars figurines and posters of 1980s pop culture. “We were just Iowa nice,” said Lande.
Xi returned to Muscatine in February 2012. At the time of this reunion of “Old Friends,” Xi was the Vice President of China. Now that he has ascended to the top leadership role of China, this has placed Iowa in a very positive light with the Chinese public. Former Muscatine Mayor Dewayne Hopkins stated on KWPC’s Moving Forward, “Culturally in China it’s very common for the people to want to visit the places that the president has visited.” Muscatine and Iowa are locations held in high regard by Xi, so the doors for increased tourism have been opened. Muscatine can expect to be a destination for some of the 1.8 million tourists who visit the United States each year.
Governor Branstad has been involved with Sino-American trade relations for the better part of 33 years. He fortified relationships Xi Jinping has with our state and our city, making Branstad the most likely choice for the role of ambassador under the newly elected President of the United States.