Wednesday's visit was a nostalgia trip for Vice President Xi Jinping, the leader-in-waiting of the world's fastest-rising economic and military power. Xi is on a getting-to-know-you visit to America; he was returning to Muscatine, where he'd stayed 27 years ago on an agricultural exchange. Clearly, the visit was intended to show his warm feelings toward the American heartland.
Yet, when I scanned the Muscatine Journal, and read of hearings held by the local planning and zoning commission, I couldn't help but wonder whether Xi was interested in how rural American towns govern themselves.
After all, one of the most intriguing questions about Xi's political intentions is whether he will pursue reforms of China's political system, especially in its vast rural regions.
The level of anger in China's agricultural heartland dwarfs the angst that drove the Iowa caucus. One of the most intriguing tales from China last year concerned a rebellion in the village of Wukan in the southern province of Guangdong. Residents rose en masse against the seizure of communal land by corrupt party officials who sold it to developers -- and then beat to death the leader sent by a committee of villagers to protest. Ordinarily, the protest would have been futile, but it wasn't (more below).
Similar land seizures have sparked protests all around China. According to a 2011 report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 40 million to 50 million farmers have lost their land since agricultural reforms began in the 1970s, with three million more joining the ranks of the landless yearly.
Often, the farmers receive little or no compensation. There are no public hearings, no planning and zoning commission, and no elected officials who must at least listen to concerns of constituents.
A new breed of public-interest lawyers has emerged that dares to represent some victims of illegal landgrabs. I met professors in Beijing in 2005 who taught courses in public-interest law and sent students to inform farmers how to challenge illegal land seizures.
But in recent years, especially after the Arab Spring, a nervous party hierarchy has cracked down on dissenters, even those who seek only the implementation of laws on the Chinese books.
One such case is that of Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who represented victims of landgrabs. He was jailed for "inciting subversion," tortured, and "disappeared" after his sentence should have ended.
The public pressure for change is growing, which, perhaps, is why the Wukan story had a different ending. Wang Yang, the most powerful Communist official in Guangdong province, decided to make the village a template for "reforming village governance." Instead of punishing those who led the uprising, Wang called for elections for new village leaders that would be held without control by local party officials. (China has held village elections since the 1980s, but they have become corrupted by the unchallenged power of the party in rural areas.) No one knows whether this story will really serve as a model. Which brings me back to Xi Jinping, whose background creates speculation as to whether he might become a political reformer.
The vice president's father, Xi Zhongxun, was one of Mao Tse-tung's lieutenants during the Communist revolution. Later purged by Mao, the elder Xi is remembered by scholars as unusually tolerant and liberal. The father is also believed to have been appalled by the Tiananmen Square massacre: he was close to Hu Yaobang, a relatively liberal Chinese Communist party leader in the mid-1980s who backed political reforms.
Has the younger Xi inherited his father's outlook? Impossible to predict. Assuming he takes office as expected, he will be constrained by China's bureaucracy and the need to solidify power.
Yet, as he visited Muscatine, there were hints that Xi has a soft spot for farmers, in America and in China. He was one of millions of youths who were sent to the countryside to do hard labor during the Cultural Revolution; he spent formative years sharing the poverty of a rural village in central China. And he has stayed in touch with some of its residents.
As Xi shook hands in Muscatine, was he thinking of the poor farmers he knew in Liangjiahe village? Will his rural links encourage him to regard Wukan as a model for reform of the village election system? Might he expand village elections to townships as his father's party allies once intended? Will Xi recognize that giving the Chinese people more political voice -- and freeing public-interest lawyers -- will help, not hurt, the chances for a stable China? Probably none of these questions entered his head in Muscatine. (He never did get to attend a session of the planning and zoning commission.) But I can't help wondering all the same.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.