So Close and Yet So Far: Ten Years After Chinese President Xi Visited the Heartland

March 2, 2022 by USHCA Chairman and CEO, Bob Holden

The Need for Better Relations is More Urgent Than Ever-

Ten years have passed since Mr. Xi Jinping, then Vice President of China, made a historic visit to the heartland of America.

Mr. Xi was returning to Muscatine, IA, where nearly a quarter-century before, he had spent six months as a young county-level cadre member of the Hebei Shijiazhuang Prefecture Corn Processing delegation. Chinese officials said Mr. Xi was grateful for the hospitality of his hosts and enjoyed his time living in rural America. He wanted to visit with old friends and relive those memories.  

Like all visits of high-level foreign leaders, Mr. Xi’s trip was highly choreographed, but it was regarded by both sides as a high point in the U.S.-China relationship. The Chinese wanted to emphasize that Mr. Xi harbored warm feelings toward the heartland, even though then, as now, the relationship between the nations was strained. “Cornfield diplomacy,“ was how it was described. Community leaders at the time said they hoped the lasting value of the visit would be a stable and productive relationship that would be built to benefit both countries in more ways than just agriculture. Mr. Xi would become president of China shortly after he returned home.

Fast forward to 2022: relations between the U.S. and China have grown even more strained since then. Tariffs on various imports from China have cost US consumers $50 billion. Further, the U.S. has not regained many of the lost manufacturing jobs while the trade deficit with China reached a historical high.

Recently, the Chinese government released a photograph of President Xi standing side-by-side with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The photo served as a sign of solidarity in the face of escalating global tensions over the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, which has now erupted into war. 

As the world grapples with the first major conflict in Europe since World War II, the need to foster better relations between the US and China is arguably greater than ever.

The jarring gap between President Xi’s warm visits with old friends in Iowa and his recent solidarity with Russian President Putin illustrates how far U.S.-China relations have deteriorated since 2012. It also represents a missed opportunity in the American Heartland to develop meaningful connections with one of the most powerful leaders that China has seen. 

But we know from experience that the road to success in any relationship is rarely, if ever, smooth. Maintaining our focus on the goal – the pursuit of initiatives that benefit both nations – is critical to eventual success. 

My belief is that the U.S.-China cooperation is essential if our planet will be able to successfully deal with the following three most critical global challenges: sustainably producing enough nutritious food to feed the growing population on our planet; countering and ameliorating the impact of climate change, especially on agricultural production; and preventing future pandemics of human, animal and plant diseases.

At the same time, to meet these challenges, it is essential that we have peace in the world and particularly peace between China and the United States. In that regard we strongly believe that one of the best ways that peace can be attained is through agricultural cooperation.  

The American Heartland, known as the “breadbasket of the world,” has played a significant role in the past laying the foundation for a productive U.S.-China relationship and can become a stabilizing force going forward again. 

Opportunities remain for us to try to revive a productive relationship. Our efforts should be focused on finding ways to better understand each other’s cultures, show others why it is so important for all of us to find positive and mutually beneficial ways to work together in the mutual interest of both countries. We need to remember that we ALL live on Planet Earth and we are all in this together.

The U.S. Heartland China Association is a 501(C)3 bipartisan organization that is dedicated to building stronger ties between the 20 states in the heartland region of the United States and the People’s Republic of China. USHCA’s efforts are concentrated on building trust among government officials, business leaders, and educational and community interests in the U.S. and in China.

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