When Sarah Lande served Xi Jinping green bean casserole at a potluck in small-town Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985, she never imagined the young Chinese official would become the leader-for-life of his country — and a fierce opponent of the US.
But this week Lande, now 85, will be reunited with Xi in San Francisco, when he attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, marking almost four decades of a very unlikely friendship.
Xi Jinping will first meet with President Biden on Wednesday during the summit to discuss hot button issues – from trade and tensions over Taiwan, to the spy balloon China deployed across the country.
In the evening Xi will dine again with Lande, although in radically different circumstances, with other guests at the Bay Area reception for 300 including American business and tech leaders eager to navigate fraught relations between the two countries.
Lande was at the time director of Iowa’s Sister States program, which builds ties with foreign countries.
In 1985, Hebei Province sent its first delegation as a “Sister State” to Iowa and Lande invited the group to visit her hometown of Muscatine, on the Mississippi, for the potluck.
As well as green bean casserole there was, she recalled, Iowa roast pork and “no doubt some homemade chocolate chip cookies.” Then-Gov. Terry Branstad brought some wine; he later became President Trump’s ambassador to China because of his friendship with Xi.
Lande first met Xi in 1985 when the 31-year-old rising politician led a delegation from China’s Hebei Province to see how Americans farmed corn and processed food.
“We didn’t realize he was going up the political ladder. At the time they were Communist but of course when we met them all the barriers came down,” Lande told The Post Monday of hosting Xi with her now late husband, Roger Lande.
“He was sort of silly with the guys. A lighthearted spirit full of joy. Eager to learn. He didn’t seem uptight at all,” Lande told The Post of Xi.
“He had read Mark Twain and wanted to be involved. I don’t believe he spoke English, there was one interpreter. He was eager to learn everything about America.”
During his trip he also went to a hog roast, took a boat ride on the Mississippi, and learned to drive a truck while he toured grain and livestock farms, and with Iowa economic development official Luca Berrone who drove Xi to grain and livestock farms, during his time relishing the Hawk Eye state.
Lande said the Iowans made a lasting impression on Xi. “He said to me, ‘you are America,’” Lande said.
The duo reunited in Lande’s home in Muscatine in 2012 when Xi came back to the US shortly after he first became president — a post he has now turned into a lifetime appointment.
And the same year, Lande and other Iowa natives visited China with Xi and his wife, Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, who hosted a banquet for the Midwesterners.
She hopes their friendship can help secure a peaceful future for the U.S. and China but said she is no fan of many of his policies.
“I was wishing Hong Kong could stay open and I certainly wish he wouldn’t invade Taiwan,” Lande told The Post.
“I hope he doesn’t do that. I think there’s so much potential if we could work together. Of course you hear a lot of vitriol. If they’re spying or taking any of our technology, I don’t know, that’s what our people say.”
“There’s so much potential if we can work together,” Lande said.
“We are the two strongest countries in the world. We want to stay strong and we will never probably agree on Taiwan and they won’t agree on democratic openness, but we need during these troubled times to work together and have our bright minds work on climate, food insecurity and now, peace throughout the world. These are really rough times.”
She said her personal message to him would be to tone down his strongman tactics, which included turning his term-limited role as the top Communist leader into a lifetime position, which “surprised” Lande.
“He can achieve those goals by being a little more open and cooperative,” Lande said.
“Maybe he thinks he has to be the strong person to make his country grow, but I’m hoping through different exchanges and through our friendship maybe we can compete as nations side by side and cooperate.
“We can’t just let egos get in the way. The world needs the two strongest economies to resolve conflict.”