Hollywood has made a lot of money over the years from the fear, bordering on paranoia in the fifties and sixties, that a 'Manchurian Candidate' was lurking in its midst, slowly accumulating power in a plot to decapitate the great American eagle. Following Xi Jinping's visit to America last week, one wonders whether a subversive filmmaker in Shanghai might be tempted to write a home-grown adaptation called 'The Muscatine Candidate'.
Not for one second am I suggesting that the Chinese Vice-President, Beijing's heir apparent, is a Washington plant. Nor that he is a closet Americaphile. In common with a large number of present-day world leaders, however, he did spend time in the US in his more youthful years, in his case the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, population just 2800. Xi Jinping visited in 1985 as the leader of an agricultural delegation, and spent two nights billeted in the home of local couple in a bedroom cluttered with Star Trek figurines.
A return to Muscatine was included on Xi's itinerary, where he impressed locals with his 'clairvoyant memory' about what he had been shown on his fact-finding mission, and also by his obvious affection for the place. This trip to the heartland gave his visit a much more upbeat and folksy feel (locals even produced t-shirts to mark his 'homecoming'), which had a welcome impact on the diplomacy.
Watching Xi meet Barack Obama at the Oval Office was visibly different to seeing Hu Jintao at work in Washington. As Matthew Pennington of the Associated Press noted, Xi 'made a conscious effort to appear less remote than the stiff and aloof Hu.' Unquestionably, there was a change in style, if not in substance. The BBC's Kim Ghattas was also struck by the amiable personal chemistry. For all the prefabricated lines about China needing to play by the rules and boost human rights, she observed that Obama 'looked like he was trying hard not to smile too much to his guest.'
If they were in need of small-talk, President Obama could have inquired about how Xi's daughter is getting on at his alma mater. Xi Mingze enrolled as a freshman at Harvard in the fall of 2010 under a pseudonym. Again, amid all the well-known points of divergence – Taiwan, Tibet, intellectual property rights, markets access and the yuan – a sizeable area of common ground.
What the visit underscored, then, was the value of cultural exchanges and programs like the Fulbright Scholarships, which are one of the great intangibles of American soft power.
So proud is the State Department of its achievements in this field that it maintains a list of 'Foreign Students Yesterday, World leaders Today', which runs to hundreds of names in dozens of countries. The roll call includes Gloria Arroyo, Kofi Annan, King Abdullah, Mikheil Saakashvili, Boutros Boutros Ghali, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres, Mary Robinson, Romano Prodi, Valdas Adamkus and Javier Solana, to name but a few. The list also includes Nick Greiner, the former premier of New South Wales, though it has not yet been amended to take in the quiet rise of Andrew Leigh, a Harvard graduate and ALP star of the future.
In recent years, under the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program, America has also intensified its efforts to attract Muslim students, three-quarters of whom have left with a more positive view of America than when they were fingerprinted at Immigration.
The diplomatic dividends from these programs are impossible to measure. Jacques Chirac's time at Harvard, after all, did not count for much when George W Bush was assembling a coalition of the willing. Nor has Benjamin Netanyahu's experience at MIT made him more malleable. But judging from the friendly welcome Xi Jinping received in Muscatine, and the warmth he showed in return, this visit unquestionably demonstrated the value.
Xi spoke repeatedly during his trip of the need for mutual respect in US-Sino relations. But that brief exposure to America's heartland all those years ago also means his personal relations with American leaders will be marked by a measure of mutual understanding.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.