Rick Kimberly still doesn’t quite know how the future leader of China ended up visiting his ranch outside Des Moines.
Before the trip in 2012, an advance group had taken a particular interest in Iowa’s agricultural areas, and Mr. Kimberly’s family farm that grows corn and soybeans was a good fit for that purpose.
“They also told us they didn’t want anyone getting on the farm machinery. I think they were worried someone might slip and fall,” he recalls.
But officials downplayed the practical enthusiasm shown by the most important member of their delegation, then-Vice President Xi Jinping.
“I saw President Xi looking at the John Deere tractor, and I asked him if he wanted to get on it,” Kimberly says.
“Of course he did. We were talking through a translator, but he didn’t wait for the translation. He understood me immediately and went straight to the tractor.”
Concerns about health and safety turned out to be unfounded, and Xi was happy and unharmed from riding on agricultural equipment.
It has proven to be another chapter in Xi’s strange relations with the largely rural Midwestern state.
Mr. Xi first traveled to Iowa in 1985 as part of an agricultural delegation from China’s Hebei Province.
He resided in Muscatine, a city of about 24,000 surrounded by farmland and the Mississippi River.
The People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, noted that the delegation “visited community elders, attended a birthday party, conducted six interviews with local media and attended five welcome banquets hosted by the American side.”
Eleanor Dvorczak, who hosted Xi at her home during his stay, later told the BBC: “I thought he was a very nice, focused and polite man.” “He was a pleasure to have in the house.”
The Dvorczaks placed Mr. Shi in the bedroom of their son, who was in college at the University of Iowa at the time. If the Chinese president had an opinion about the Star Trek room’s wallpaper, he was able to keep it to himself.
Some of the Iowans the future president met during that initial trip are now known in Chinese media as “old friends.” While the often frosty relationship between the United States and China will be detailed in minute detail during this week’s APEC summit and the meeting between Mr. Xi and President Joe Biden, he is sure to receive a warm welcome from the many “old friends” who have invited him to dinner.
As part of his trip to the state in 2012, he returned to Muscatine, and the following year a Chinese businessman bought the old Dvorczak family home, which was turned into a museum for a time.
Iowa is not on the itinerary this week, but Xi is also expected to meet with Terry Branstad, the state’s former governor who served as ambassador to China under Donald Trump.
Branstad, who did not respond to a request for comment, told an Iowa newspaper after leaving the ambassador’s post that although he enjoyed a warm personal relationship with Mr. Xi, he had deep concerns about some of the Chinese government’s policies.
“The action they took against people in Hong Kong… [and] “I think the mistreatment of Uyghurs is unconscionable,” he told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.
He also criticized the country’s secrecy about the origins of the first Covid-19 outbreak, saying: “I really think their system is a real problem.”
Kimberly, now 72 and part of the fifth generation of his Iowa farming family dating back to the 1860s, says that in 2012, the Chinese delegation was interested in more than just a photo op — they posed a lot of Questions about the finer details of modern agriculture.
For him personally, the visit was a life-changing event. He was later invited to China and has since traveled to the country more than 20 times as part of efforts to promote agricultural development.
“We promote sustainable agriculture and better ways to grow,” he says. “We farm 4,000 acres with four people. It’s amazing to people in China that you can farm this much area with so few people.”
It also made his farm a tourist attraction. Kimberly says “hundreds, if not thousands” of Chinese have since made the journey to the place where their leader once rode a tractor.
“Travel specialist. Typical social media scholar. Friend of animals everywhere. Freelance zombie ninja. Twitter buff.”