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China's ruling Communist Party will anoint a new leader this week. Xi Jinping is now the country's vice president. In that role, he's visited 41 countries, travelling more widely than any other Chinese leader-in-waiting. But in all his globe-trotting, his fondest memories are from a surprising place: a small town in Iowa. NPR's Louisa Lim begins her report with a couple of townspeople who remember him well.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: President Xi, welcome back to Iowa.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Muscatine, Iowa: That's the small town China's next leader wanted to return to when he visited the States in February. He'd stayed in Muscatine 27 years ago, and he was determined to go back.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SARAH LANDE: But this time, he had a grand presence. And when he came in the door, it was just sort of a feeling of electric-ness of it, you know, that everybody was so excited.

LIM: Sarah Lande helped organize his first visit in 1985 as part of a sister cities program. Then he toured hog farms and feed plants. She describes him as organized and inquisitive.

LANDE: He said: I always wanted to see the Mississippi River. He read Mark Twain growing up. And anyway, he got a boat ride on the Mississippi and home-stayed. We treated him what we call Iowa-nice, just like everyone else, with the warm hospitality, and I think it stuck.

VICE PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Chinese spoken)

LIM: It stuck so much, he asked to come back almost three decades later, as leader-in-waiting. So, back in February, Sarah Lande hosted a tea party for him. There, he spoke to 17 of his old friends.

LANDE: He said, for me, you are America. That was a great, big thing. And my impression of America came from you. For me, you are America. So, wow, that was powerful.

LIM: She was in China last week with four others from Muscatine, setting up a sister city arrangement with Zhengding in Hebei, where Xi had worked as party secretary. Lande's visited China six times. Another visitor from Muscatine is Albert Liu, who runs a lighting company. He was born in China, and says he was surprised when he heard Xi speaking in Iowa.

ALBERT LIU: The most striking thing that that this gentleman does not talk like a typical Chinese official. He can tell stories, and tell stories like you and me. We are all used to listen to the official statements. So it's almost from a script. It's not from the script. It's small, but to me, it's big.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: On a trip to the U.S. in 1980, Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, also stood out from other officials. The former revolutionary was leading a delegation from China. When visiting Hawaii, he showed an unusual sense of self-confidence and fun.

JAN BERRIS: He was a wonderful sport. He put on a hula skirt and leis, and he let the dancers teach him a few steps.

LIM: Jan Berris from the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations accompanied Xi Jinping's father on the trip. She describes him as very impressive, open and straightforward.

BERRIS: And the father struck me as a very thoughtful and humane and dedicated person, and I'm hoping the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

LIM: It's difficult to know Xi Jinping's true character. An off-the-cuff comment in Mexico three years ago gives one hint. Then he criticized foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than criticize China. China, he went on, does not export revolution or famine or poverty, or mess around with other countries. That remark was greeted with glee by nationalists.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LIM: However, that unscripted moment may have dogged him. In Washington, during his most recent visit, Orville Schell from the Asia Society attended a banquet for him. He was struck by the Chinese vice-president's extraordinary self-control.

ORVILLE SCHELL: I've rarely seen a human being whose face maintains such control. So little escaped it. And, of course, that tells you something, the costs of being demonstrative, even an excessive smile, much less some untoward word, it's so high. It does suggest that there's a level of sensitivity, delicacy and nervousness.

LIM: That may be due to the fractious nature of this year's transition of power, as the Communist Party faces multiple scandals and calls for reform. Xi becomes party leader at the end of this week's meeting. His old friend Sarah Lande is torn about how she feels.

LANDE: Oh, my goodness. In fact, sometimes I care about him a lot, and so I'm worried that he has to have this job. You know, I'm glad that he's there, but I don't want it to be too difficult for him. So I think he's an excellent leader for the time. I think the Chinese people are fortunate to have him.

LIM: To many Chinese, however, he's just another faceless party bureaucrat. Xi Jinping will need every ounce of talent and diplomacy he can muster, since even the Communist Party admits he's facing unprecedented challenges ahead. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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