When Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad arrives in Beijing as the new American ambassador, it will represent an extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, 37-year-long story of a relationship between a relatively small American state and one of the most dynamic and influential families in the most consequential country in the world to the United States. It is, in fact, two interesting stories.
As most Iowans now know, the celebrated relationship of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Iowa began with his visit as a 31-year-old county-level official from Hebei Province in April 1985. He met with Branstad, then in his first term, and subsequently traveled around the state with a particularly memorable stop in Muscatine.
This association with Iowa was given wide national prominence with his sentimental return in 2012, when Xi was on the verge of assuming the presidency of China. In his visit to Sarah and Roger Lande's home in Muscatine and at the "state dinner" that Branstad hosted in his honor at the State Capitol, Vice President Xi spoke movingly of the warmth with which he had been received as an unknown visitor and of his affection for Iowa and his "old friends."
Four years later, it was that historic connection and the personal relationship, that was key to Branstad being chosen by President-elect Donald Trump for this most critical diplomatic post.
There is, however, a second, much less well-known Iowa connection to the Xi family, that adds considerably to this amazing legacy. It came on Oct. 26, 1980, when a delegation of Chinese provincial governors, led by President Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, arrived in Des Moines. It was first delegation of Chinese governors to visit America following the normalization of U.S.-Chinese diplomatic relations.
The group spent several days in Iowa where, as a member of then-Gov. Robert Ray's staff, I had the privilege to escort them to see the essential elements of Iowa's spectacular agricultural infrastructure. Included on our packed two-day agenda were visits to a highly efficient family farm, flourishing agribusiness companies and innovative research projects at Iowa State University, all connected by wide interstate highways and ubiquitous paved farm-to-market rural roads.
Included on our tour was a stop in the Amana Colonies, which we had thought might be a pleasant diversion and a good place for an early dinner. To my surprise, however, the Chinese delegation members, and Gov. Xi Zhongxun in particular, were more engaged in questions than at any other stop on the tour. They seemed endlessly fascinated by this story of what I thought they perceived as American communism.
Gov. Xi leaned forward to ask about how Amana had originally been organized on a communal basis with joint ownership of all the land and food that was produced. That original Amana structure in many ways paralleled the way that all of Chinese agriculture was still structured in 1980.
I distinctly recall that Gov. Xi seemed riveted as he and the other delegates heard how the decision had been taken in the 1930s to divide up the Amana commune into individual farms, with each family now controlling its own parcel of land and keeping all of the crops they produced. But while the economic production structure may have changed, they were told that the political culture and the sense of community within Amana was retained.
At the time, I thought the Chinese governors were so interested in this topic, just because it seemed a historical oddity — communism in capitalist America. Looking back now, almost four decades later, it seems clear to me that Gov. Xi may have seen in Amana a microcosm for the changes that he would subsequently initiate in China.
Xi Zhongxun was at that time the governor of Guangdong Province, where the earliest Chinese economic reforms were being implemented. In addition, he was a close political ally of, and the senior economic adviser to, Deng Xiao Peng, the paramount leader of China.
In this position, Gov. Xi became the chief architect of the stunning Chinese economic transformation, reflected by the proliferation of skyscrapers and wide expressways that are the images of modern, post-Mao China. Included was the sweeping agricultural reform, which, just like Amana, now allowed individual Chinese farmers to control their own plots of land and production.
The results of this agricultural reformation were so immediate and dramatic that just 13 years later, the Chinese minister of agriculture traveled to Des Moines to receive the 1993 World Food Prize. Minister He Kang was, in reality, being recognized for implementing Xi Zhongxun's vision, which caused Chinese agriculture to expand its output exponentially, eventually lifting half of the country's population, about a half billion people, out of poverty.
It remains the most stunning accomplishment in global food security since Norman Borlaug led the Green Revolution.
In spring 2016, during an interview with a Chinese journalist, I recounted for him the story of Gov. Xi Zhongxun's visit and what he had observed during his 1980 trip to Iowa: private agribusinesses, agricultural research universities, wide paved farm-to-market roads and the transformation of the Amana commune into individual family farms. The journalist looked up from his notebook and told me, "You have just described what Chinese agriculture looks like in 2016."
It was then that it all became clear to me. China has over the last 35 years lowered its poverty rate from 60 percent to 10 percent, by uplifting the living standards of 500 million people. It is indeed an interesting story that a key piece of this achievement, the transformation of China's agriculture sector, appears to be patterned on what Gov. Xi Zhongxun saw in Iowa in 1980.
By: Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn, World Food Prize President
Published: The Des Moines Register - 1/6/17