For nine days the choir at Lincoln High School in Tacoma had learned to sing “On the Fields of Hope,” a ballad made popular in China by Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
What’s more, the American students learned to sing the song in Mandarin.
Now, hours before the arrival Wednesday of China’s first couple at the school – part of President Xi’s effort to connect with ordinary Americans during his US visit – choir members at Lincoln nervously anticipated performing for Peng, a folk singer who was once more famous in China than her husband.
As it turned out, the Chinese leader and his wife were an easy audience.
Xi arrived at Lincoln, strolling past students waving Chinese and American flags. He stopped to watch the football team practice, where he was given a gift football. Then Xi visited an AP Government class where he reiterated his main message: Build bridges between the US and China, gain a deeper understanding of each other, and ensure a “bright future” for relations between the two countries.
Finally, the choir performed “On the Fields of Hope” to booming cheers. Xi then revealed a set of gifts for the school: Books on Chinese history – and a ping-pong table.
“Ping-pong balls are much smaller than the American footballs,” he explained. “But they have very big implications for the US-China relationship [...] They helped to reopen the exchanges of China and the US and from then on China-US relations have entered into a new phase.”
The president also invited 100 students from Lincoln High School to study in China next year. On Friday, Xi and Peng will be feted at a White House state dinner.
Xi’s 30-mile drive from Seattle to Tacoma rekindled a relationship forged 22 years ago. At that time, Xi traveled to Tacoma as Communist Party chief of the southern Chinese port city of Fuzhou. A year later he oversaw the signing of a sister-city relationship between Tacoma and Fuzhou.
“These personal contacts are unique to Xi,” says David Bachman, a China specialist at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. “In contrast to earlier Chinese presidents, he had some limited contacts in the US in his early career.”
“[Xi] wants to show that it’s in everyone’s interest to maintain these kind of ties at the people-to-people and official-to-official levels,” says Prof. Bachman. “He sends the message that China’s most powerful leader doesn’t forget the people he had contact with and values meeting with ordinary Americans.”
The visit to Tacoma echoed Xi's trip to Iowa in 2012, when, as vice president, he sought out the family he had stayed with on a 1985 agricultural exchange trip.
Earlier Chinese presidents sought to forge bonds with ordinary Americans: President Jiang Zemin visited the house of a Boeing factory worker in 1993. But he had no personal connection to the family.
Xi's message is carefully crafted to reach both American and Chinese audiences, analysts say.
Pomp and substance
Since becoming president in 2013, Xi has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since reformist Deng Xiaoping. He has launched a massive anticorruption campaign, initiated a robust island-building program in the contested South China Sea, and overseen a wide clampdown on civil society groups in China.
At home Xi is dogged by a sputtering economy while middle class Chinese are demanding cleaner air and better health care.
“Xi is keenly interested in using the summit to showcase himself as a strong leader, and having Chinese citizens perceive the summit as a harmonious meeting between equals,” the Los Angeles Times wrote.
"The pomp in this is going to be every bit as important as the substance," said Christopher Johnson, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told the Times.
At Lincoln High, senior wide receiver Alvin Johnson, gave Xi a football after he observed their practice. Alvin said that Xi told him football isn’t popular in China yet. But the president added that, with a 1.3 billion-plus population, he was sure once football becomes popular in China it will be a very important force. Then he complemented the Lincoln players and said he was sure some stars would emerge from among them. [Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated Xi's comments.]
“It didn’t hit me how big of a deal it was until the president and his entourage came in and everyone kept flowing in,” Alvin said. “It took a while for it to sink in. When he was talking to us, I realized he’s a pretty cool guy, he has a lot of power.”
Chelsea Sheasley works for Tacoma Public Schools. She is a former Asia editor for The Christian Science Monitor.