From Iowa to Beijing: Gary Dvorchak’s Personal Journey with President Xi Jinping
Embarking on the nuanced landscape of US-China relations, Gary Dvorchak, a finance professional based in China, unravels a unique narrative that traverses geopolitical boundaries. This feature for the AmCham China Quarterly magazine delves into Dvorchak’s unlikely history with Chinese President Xi Jinping, established during a pivotal 1985 delegation visit to Iowa. Beyond the formalities of diplomatic engagements, Dvorchak shares insights into the grassroots relationships that form the bedrock of his commitment to fostering understanding between the two nations.
You have a unique connection to President Xi Jinping. Can you share how you first became connected?
Gary Dvorchak: The story is quite well-known across China, but I still enjoy telling it! As a young county-level official, Xi led a delegation that visited Iowa in 1985 to study US agricultural practices. The visit was organized by the Iowa Sister States (ISS), a young organization that had recently established a sister-state relationship between Iowa and Hebei. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, who had visited Hebei in 1984, extended the invitation to have a delegation come to Iowa.
Xi’s delegation spent two weeks traveling around Iowa, visiting farms and factories, hosted full-time by ISS representative Luca Berrone. In the middle of the trip, they came to my hometown Muscatine for a few days. To make the visit more personal, ISS arranged homestays for the delegation. The organizer of the Muscatine stop, Sarah Lande, was friends with my mom and asked her to host a couple of people from the delegation. She called my mom because my brother and I were away at college, so she knew we had a couple of empty bedrooms!
We were lucky because we got Xi and the delegation’s translator, Wenyi Xia, so my family was able to carry on a conversation and learn more about them…and vice versa! My parents and 14-year-old sister were the hosts and spent the evenings discussing China, America, and their differences, as well as our common values.
I joke that I did my part by clearing out! If we had not had the empty bedrooms, Xi and Xia would have stayed elsewhere. My bedroom is now famous in China as that of the “teenage son with the Star Trek memorabilia.” Although I did not meet Xi in 1985, I have since met him twice, including a private dinner in 2015 with my whole family and the first family of China.
Can you describe the significance of Xi Jinping’s trip to Iowa in his early years and how it might have influenced his views on the US-China relationship?
Gary Dvorchak: No one should be surprised that the trip was so memorable for him. This was his first time out of China and his first time to the US. All of us remember every detail of major life events like that! However, the trip was especially memorable for Xi because of the homestays. Meeting the people, staying in their homes, and getting a taste of their daily life was an unexpected and wonderful treat. The people of Muscatine rolled out the red carpet, inviting the delegation to a barbecue, a birthday party, a boat ride on the Mississippi river, and more. This level of hospitality was striking because this was not a VIP delegation; at the time, they were just ordinary people visiting from China.
The visit left a lasting and positive impression on Xi. He has often referred to the Muscatine “Old Friends” and said, “to me, you are America.” He made a direct and lasting connection with normal everyday people. This connection has inspired and informed the priority he puts on people-to-people exchanges, which is one of the foundations of his approach to relations with foreign countries.
In your opinion, what lasting impact has Xi Jinping’s Iowa experience had on diplomatic and economic interactions between the two countries?
Gary Dvorchak: I believe this long-standing relationship has created an underlying positive foundation for the relationship between our two countries. Even as Xi interacts with the US government in his official capacity and defends his country’s interests, he gained an understanding of the American people that few other international leaders can replicate. Xi’s interactions with Americans were unfiltered and unscripted, and he has insights that inform his view of America to this day.
What can both countries learn from Xi Jinping’s early exposure to American life and culture in terms of building a more collaborative relationship?
Gary Dvorchak: A key lesson is the value and strength of grassroots relationships. Nearly all of us get our understanding of other countries and cultures from the media, which is often distorted or simplistic. Meeting the people and interacting, building relationships in the process, offers far more insight into our shared values as human beings. Our differences are small when compared to our common humanity. China has long promoted people-to-people relationships, mainly through the various “Friendship Associations” operating at the national and regional level. That commitment to grassroots relationships has been further strengthened under Xi. Now that the pandemic has passed, hopefully, an increasing volume of exchanges—in both directions—can foster better mutual understanding between the peoples of our two countries.
Can you share insights from your recent meeting with Xi Jinping at APEC and its implications for future US-China economic collaborations?
Gary Dvorchak: I had the privilege to meet Xi personally during the private reception with the “Old Friends from Iowa” and to attend the large banquet where he spoke. His speech at the banquet was especially important. He extended a hand of friendship and struck all the right notes in terms of getting our relationship back on solid footing. He emphasized important themes, saying that China does not pose a threat either to the US or its neighbors. He also noted that our relationship has survived many ups and downs, and in the end, the world needs us to get along. The US and China will lead the world in the 21st century, and while we may compete economically, the competition must be friendly and productive for all.
How did your own interactions with Xi Jinping shape your trajectory and interest in US-China relations?
Gary Dvorchak: Of all the Old Friends from Iowa, I am the only one that moved to China! I have lived in Beijing for ten years, after moving here in 2013 with my family. My daughters spent half of their childhood in China and consider it home. Because of our intimate and ongoing knowledge of China, like other Americans that live here, my view of the relationship is often different from those viewing China from afar. Being a private businessman, my role is often as an unofficial “Friendship Ambassador” trying to correct misperceptions and promote understanding rather than conflict. I suspect most of our AmCham China members feel the same way when they return to the US. This role is not easy, but it does fit the model of understanding China through grassroots relationships. I am proud to be an advocate of a more conciliatory and empathetic understanding of China and its people.
You have spent half of your career working in finance in the US and half in China. How would you compare working in the two systems?
Gary Dvorchak: Working here in China, I enjoy pointing out to my fellow Americans that China is the most capitalist country on earth! More so than the US, in fact. In both countries, people are free to pursue the careers they want; they are free to start businesses, and they get to enjoy the benefits of their success while contributing to the common good (as taxpayers, for example). In both countries, companies adjust to changing economic and regulatory conditions, and some thrive while some fail. In both countries, the authorities and the people are concerned about unbalanced distribution of income and wealth and are exploring what policies can best reduce imbalances while not restricting economic growth. Between our two systems, the common elements are vast, and the meaningful differences are small.
In your view, what are the key factors that will define the future of US-China economic partnerships?
Gary Dvorchak: I firmly believe that neither country poses any sort of “existential threat” to each other. At the core, we are the two countries leading the world and at a minimum will need to coexist peacefully. Our two technology industries are creating the future for planet earth, whether it be AI or autonomous vehicles or a hundred other technologies. We need to have a friendly, competitive rivalry because competition brings out the best in people, but we can’t let it go overboard. We all need to keep in mind that economics is not war, even though it is often described using that language. Economics is about service to others; we need to understand our economic relationship through the lens of how we are serving each other, and the win-win benefits that result. More trade and thus more interdependency are the single greatest force for peace among all countries. This was the founding idea underlying the EU after World War II and should be the underlying foundation of the relationship between our two countries. AmCham China is playing a key role in promoting this concept.
How do you leverage your expertise in technology and finance to foster better understanding and cooperation between the two countries?
Gary Dvorchak: This happens in my business daily. We advise Chinese companies on raising capital in the US markets via IPOs and then advise them on communicating with investors after going public. The US capital markets are a great global success story. Our capital markets can provide Chinese companies with the capital they need to grow while enabling US investors to participate in one of the great growth opportunities of our lives.
Beyond my business, we are undertaking a major project to promote better relations between our two countries. I recently purchased back my childhood home in Muscatine, the one that Xi stayed in four decades ago. We are developing it into an Iowa Sister States Museum that will promote friendship among all countries, but especially highlighting the US-China relationship. We hope that the museum will enable both Chinese and American visitors to better understand our shared human values and learn more about each other’s countries and cultures. We look forward to opening the museum sometime in 2024, and I personally invite all our members to visit one day.