Xi, Iowa friend agree youths hold key to ties

By Zhang Yunbi and May Zhou (China Daily) 08:38, January 16, 2024

This photo taken on Feb 15, 2012 depicts then Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping (3rd right, front) joining dozens of ordinary Americans for tea at a local house owned by his old friend Sarah Lande (3rd, left) in Muscatine, a small city in Iowa, the United States. [Photo/Xinhua]

Sarah Lande, a resident of Muscatine in the US state of Iowa and an old friend of President Xi Jinping's, nodded with a smile when Xi unveiled an ambitious plan for China-US people-to-people exchanges at a dinner reception in San Francisco in November.

"I also wish to announce here that to increase exchanges between our peoples, especially between the youth, China is ready to invite 50,000 young Americans to China on exchange and study programs in the next five years," Xi said in his speech at the welcoming dinner, which was hosted by friendly United States organizations.

Lande went home and wrote a letter to Xi, noting that his plan was encouraging, and saying that she hoped Muscatine High School could be part of the program.

Xi wrote in a reply letter on Jan 4, "I welcome the students of Muscatine to participate in this project."

Lande said she was "honored" to hear from Xi, and that her "heart was warmed" to receive greetings as well from Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, in the letter.

In his reply, Xi said the future growth of China-US ties "needs to rely even more on the two peoples", and he added that he hoped more young people from the US will visit China, see China with their own eyes and "build more bridges "between the two peoples.

Lande told China Daily, "The deep, long-term friendship between old friends in China and the US has built a strong foundation for our young people to participate in student exchanges and become the citizen diplomats of the future."

Lande, former executive director of the nonprofit organization Iowa Sister States, first met Xi in 1985 when he visited Muscatine as secretary of the Communist Party of China Zhengding county committee in Hebei province. She was one of the organizers of that visit.

When recalling the 1985 visit during the November reception in San Francisco, Xi told guests including Lande: "The days I spent with them are unforgettable. For me, they represent America."

They first reunited when Xi made a trip to the US in 2012 as China's vice-president and visited Lande's home for a big get-together with people he has affectionately referred to as his "old friends" in Iowa.

In 2022, Xi sent a reply after Lande wrote to him and enclosed, as a gift, a copy of her memoir "Old Friends": The Xi Jinping-Iowa Story.

"Peace through friendship and trust is the hope for future China-US relations," Lande told China Daily.

Xi's recent reply letter "is part of the story about a friendship that has lasted nearly 40 years", Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.

This year also marks the 45th anniversary of China-US diplomatic ties.

"Over the past 45 years, it is the reaching out to each other by our peoples that has time and again brought China-US relations from a low ebb back onto the right track," Mao told a news conference on Friday.

Those who advocate Sino-US friendship have been impressed by how institutions and communities in China as well as the US are moving quickly to advance the student visits plan.

"As we speak, government agencies in China, universities and civil society organizations are gearing up to send out invitations," senior Chinese official Liu Jianchao said when addressing the nonpartisan US think tank Council on Foreign Relations last week in New York.

Liu, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, said in his speech that "we believe communication is the only way of increasing common understanding".

Observers from both countries have highlighted the dire need to secure momentum in the improvement of ties by advancing two-way exchanges, given the political atmosphere in the US and the anti-China voices.

Dan Stein, chairman of the Muscatine-China Initiatives Committee and a native of Muscatine, a city with a population of around 24,000, said: "Just totally blasting each other is not going to solve anything. I think you've got to try to talk, and if the US and China can find stable relations, then it makes everything else better and easier for the rest of the world."

Wang Dong, a professor and executive director of the Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding at Peking University, said the plan for visits by 50,000 US students over five years is "one of the most visionary measures" included in the con-sensus reached by Xi and US President Joe Biden during their San Francisco summit in November.

"The plan could potentially 'revolutionize' China-US relations for years and decades down the road. Should it be accomplished, the ambitious plan will amount to one of the largest people-to-people exchange initiatives in history," he said.

By engaging the young generation from the US, China will help cultivate a next generation of US leaders who will be more empathetic to Chinese culture and history, hold fewer ideological prejudices, and be more willing to accept China on an equal footing, Wang added.

Earlier this month, a delegation of students from New York-based Columbia University concluded a trip in China.

In Chengdu, they joined a China-US Youth Gala Dinner, interacted with Chinese peers, and enjoyed local delicacies, local folk traditions such as face-changing and other intangible cultural heritage.

During the gala, many of them went onstage to join in the dancing and singing.

"This is just the start of making friends here, so we shared a bit about how our academic courses work, and what it is we are learning at our universities," said Patrick Alexander Fitz, one of the Columbia University students.

Speaking to local media, he said that such exchanges are "the first opportunity" for them to forge relationships and bonds.

"If we hope for a better tomorrow, a more peaceful tomorrow, it is important that we, the youth, take on that responsibility of learning more about each other and finding ways to work together even in times of difficulty or when maybe we don't agree," he said.

(Web editor: Tian Yi, Liang Jun)


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