Among the guests at a $2,000-a-plate dinner for Xi Jinping Wednesday night was Luca Berrone, attending as a guest of the Chinese government.
The Des Moines businessman worked with the volunteer-driven Iowa Sister States program to establish a relationship with Hebei Province in 1983. It was a connection made with corn and solidified with soybeans by an organization that “is dedicated to connecting Iowans with to the world community.”
The group’s mission, it says “is to develop and implement programs that promote the cultural, economic and other interests of Iowa and its friends around the world.”
One of those friends rose decades later to become the leader of a 1.4 billion-person-strong global superpower while retaining a fondness for the Iowans he met almost 40 years ago despite the mutual suspicion that marks China’s relationship with the U.S.
In the spring of 1985, as the coordinator of the nonprofit Iowa Sister States, Berrone hosted Xi, then party committee secretary of Zhengding County, Hebei Province, and his delegation. Berrone arranged their itinerary and escorted Xi for two weeks as they explored the farmland around Muscatine, a city of about 24,000 people in southeast Iowa.
The not-yet-famous Xi bunked in a bedroom in the home of a local family, freed up because their son was away at college. That solution to a logistical problem, Berrone told The Des Moines Register, is key to Xi’s bond with Iowa.
“The only hotel available in Muscatine was all booked up. So I reached out to Sarah Lande, who was on the (Iowa Sister States) committee, and I asked if it was possible to organize home stays for the Chinese delegation, and she was able to contact a few families that were interested,” Berrone told the Register. “And it turned out those home stays were a turning point in building those long-term friendships.”
The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, noted that the delegation “visited elderly people in the local community, attended a birthday party, had six interviews with local media outlets and attended five welcome banquets held by the U.S. side.”
Berrone told VOA Mandarin on Monday afternoon that the five gentlemen of Hebei Province were congenial and personable.
“President Xi was very curious and intelligent,” he told VOA Mandarin. “I made sure they learned as much as possible about agricultural methods, technology and processing.”
In addition, there was a hog roast, a boat trip on the Mississippi River and rides on advanced farming equipment.
“We had a really good time in two weeks,” Berrone told Fortune. “We were like the road movie — five or six guys on a road trip.”
While the term “old friend” is often used by China to pay tribute to foreigners seen as beneficial to the interests of the Party, such as Henry Kissinger, it also can also carry a nostalgic feeling shared by longtime companions who respect and enjoy each others’ company.
Xi returned to Iowa in 2012, the year before he started his first five-year term as president and met with Berrone along with other old friends. Lande recalled Xi saying, “You were the first people I met in America, and to me, you are America,” according to Fortune.
In October 2013, Iowa companies and organizations signed 20 cooperative trade agreements with Hubei Province counterparts with a combined value touted at more than $1 billion.
In March 2019, when Xi visited Italy, then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte invited Berrone to welcome Xi, an event Berrone told VOA Mandarin was a highlight of his life.
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