In 1985, Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak opened their Muscatine, Iowa home to a young man from China on an animal-feed delegation. At the time, he was the county officer in the backwater province of Heibei—an unremarkable job for a then unremarkable politician.
The Dvorchaks’ children had just left for college, and their son’s bedroom was newly vacated. For three nights, the officer, Xi Jinping, rested his head under a roof blanketed in starlight from the vast, crisp Midwestern sky. His days were spent studying Iowa’s infinite rolling fields, learning the secrets of American agriculture at the source.
Muscatine is home to about 20,000 people and cradles a bend of the Mississippi River. Its workers dutifully harvest and process corn for the most important parts of the country. The city has an arts center, a community garden, an Arby’s and a buck-per-ride bus service. Most noteworthy, however, is that this all-American town also happens to be a major nexus point for Sino-American relations.
Jinping is of course now General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman of the Central Military Commission and President of the People’s Republic of China, having rose to the latter post in March 2013. In the months before he was named the preeminent leader of the world’s most populous country, Jinping made a state visit to the United States—about 30 years after his stay with the Dvorchaks in Iowa. The affairs of that February 2012 trip were cosmopolitan and symbolic in the way that high-profile diplomatic missions normally are: a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, an exchange of pleasantries in Washington D.C. with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Jinping uses Iowa as a safe way to ingratiate himself with the West—a way to dismantle culture shock.
But before he returned home, Jinping booked a trip back to Muscatine. He wanted to visit old friends, and establish some good press. By then, the Dvorchaks had left Iowa behind and were now happily retired on Florida’s breezy coastline. Eleanor had not kept tabs on Jinping’s political acceleration. Instead, one day, she picked up the phone and learned that, 27 years prior, she had unwittingly hosted a man who was now one of the most important and powerful people in the world.
“I almost needed smelling salts,“ Eleanor tells Playboy. "Even now it leaves me speechless. It was such a small part to open up my house to him, but I hope we left a positive-enough impression that it helps to keep good relations between the United States and China. I still can hardly believe how important it was to him.”
Eleanor and Thomas were two of 14 Muscatiners invited to a 2012 reunion with Jinping. They dined on tenderloin, spring rolls and bacon-wrapped scallops in a pristine 19th century home. His remarks to them were brief but powerful: “You were the first group of Americans I came into contact with,” he said through a translator. “To me, you are America.” Later that year, he invited that same group of Iowans on an executive tour of China. The Dvorchaks welcomed Jinping to Muscatine, so Jinping welcomed the Dvorchaks to the Forbidden City. It was friendly democracy at work.
A month ago, Xi Jinping met with President Donald Trump in his Mar-a-Lago country club to discuss contentious trade deals, currency valuations and the growing, ornery threat of North Korea. These negotiations are tense and formal—hours of tangled policy between two economies, two creeds, two superpowers. Jinping himself is notoriously enigmatic; his public presence is dictated by sycophantic foreign policy spokespeople and a lapdog state press. There are precious few moments when you glean President Xi The Man. President Xi The Nostalgist. President Xi The Tourist.
Jinping’s father was a first-generation Communist revolutionary who was surreptitiously purged from the party in the mid-1960s. It’s the sort of dishonor that often builds a reformist grudge, but Jinping’s ideals have always been firmly, resolutely red. A profile in The New Yorker in 2015 quotes Kevin Rudd, a former Prime Minister of Australia who speaks Mandarin and has communicated with Jinping at length, as saying, “The bottom line in any understanding of who Xi Jinping must begin with his dedication to the Party as an institution. [That’s] despite the fact that through his personal life and his political life he has experienced the best of the Party and the worst of the Party.”
So, you will not find any American proceduralism in the Jinping doctrine. No hopes for a bicameral political structure or a multi-party system or free speech or an unmuzzled internet with Facebook. He is on record saying that Chinese universities should pledge allegiance to the Communist Party to curtail the spread of Western values. The BBC recently warned of Beijing’s sharp, foreboding turn into authoritarianism. “He’s absolutely typical of his generation and of leaders around him,” says Kerry Brown, author of CEO, China, one of the few biographies of Jinping. “He’s no different. An ambiguous attitude towards America, a deep appreciation and admiration, a lot of empathy, an almost love-hate relationship, but absolutely resisting America’s influence, or that China will one day become politically similar with America.”
But despite that orthodoxy, a visit to a small, capitalist-agrarian township seems to have stuck to Jinping’s soul. It is a difficult thing to deduce, and Brown suspects a cynical answer. Perhaps Jinping uses Iowa as a safe way to ingratiate himself with the West—a way to dismantle the culture shock between the Pacific without spurring any awkward questions about human rights or Taiwanese sovereignty; to look familiar.
“He’s a very natural politician, this is a wonderful opportunity for him to make a personal link with the American people…I think that’s one of his great strengths,” says Brown. “This is why you’re writing about it. Because that’s never really existed before.”
For what it’s worth, Eleanor rejects that narrative entirely. “It’d be an an amazing feat if it was just [for politics.] He was very genuine,” she says. The thing she recalls most about his brief time in her house was his dedication. That young Jinping was humble, polite and eager to learn. “He spoke softly, and still does today,” she continues. “He didn’t have a fathead. That man did not come with his golf clubs. He came here to work. He listens, there was no time to go out for a game or down to the pub. He was all business.”
Frankly, the Dvorchaks have far more authority to categorize their relationship with Jinping than any outside expert or analyst. They know each other as human beings. They’ve looked into each other’s eyes. Like many of us, Eleanor is concerned about the ominous tones our foreign policy has adopted in recent months. There is no shortage of cable-news analysts warning of an incoming trade war (or worse) between the two countries. But she sleeps well at night, because she hopes that when President Xi Jinping thinks of America, he thinks of her son’s bedroom in their old Muscatine house.
“There’s something about [Jinping] that makes me feel a little more comfortable and a little more secure that our problems aren’t going to come from China, and that comes from my experiences. I really have a friend there,” she says. “I know it’s not going to change anything, and I know that not everyone is going to believe me, but it brings comfort to my household.”