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Evolving Connections: Formal Relationships Make Way for Enduring Friendships

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn at SFLS

One of the lessons I learned during my 32-year diplomatic career is that while official relationships between governments can have their extreme ups and downs, person-to-person friendships can endure even during times of considerable political strain. I saw this when I was US ambassador to Cambodia and see it now, having again experienced the power of such personal connections in regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building Relationships

Iowa, perhaps more than any other state, has shown the impact that person-to-person relationships can have on formal diplomatic relations.

The Positive Impact of Citizen Diplomacy 

One of the most celebrated special connections is that of Sarah Lande of Muscatine to China's President Xi Jinping, whom she hosted in 1985 when he visited America for the first time as a 31-year-old young provincial official. Twenty-seven years later, Vice President Xi made a sentimental return to Iowa in 2012 at the invitation of then Governor Terry Branstad, and I had the opportunity to welcome him to the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. As I greeted him, I noted how I had escorted his father around Iowa in 1980 during the first visit by a Chinese official following the establishment of diplomatic relations. It brought a huge smile to President Xi's face.

The positive results of such "citizen diplomacy" in Iowa is evident in the work of such organizations as Iowa Sister States, Sister Cities and the Iowa International Center. But it also directly impacts our economic and agricultural sectors.

Vice President Xi gave the keynote address at the U.S. - China Agricultural Symposium, we were hosting. At that event, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack signed a Strategic Cooperation in Agriculture agreement between our two countries, and representatives of national and Iowa-based soy industries signed agreements for the sale of $3.5 billion of soybeans to China.

Renewing Past Friendships

During my two decades leading the World Food Prize, I had multiple opportunities to develop relationships and friendships with organizations and individuals across China. In 2019 I made four separate trips to China, during which I had the opportunity to build upon the friendships that we had established during those 20 years. Among these stops were: Ambassador Kenneth Quinn Visits

Shijiahuang Foreign Language School

I visited Shijiahuang Foreign Language School (SFLS) in Hebei Province, which is Iowa's "Sister State" partner. Each October, 10 high school students from the SFLS travel to DSM to attend the World Food Prize Global Youth Institute. Many then go on to study at U.S. colleges and universities.


I delivered the keynote address at a symposium on international rice development and hosted in the city of Changsha by Professor Yuan Longping, the most distinguished agricultural scientist in the history of China and the 2004 World Food Prize Laureate. While there I also visited with the Iowa high school student who was assigned at Professor Yuan's Hybrid Rice National Research Center as a World Food Prize Borlaug-Ruan International Intern. We have been sending a student there each summer for over a decade.

Given the genuine good feelings that have been built through multiple acts of friendship with these two institutions (and many others in China) over past decades, it should not have been a surprise when last week I received packages from both the SFLS and Prof. Yuan's Center containing surgical masks — along with notes indicating these were gifts to help Iowans as we confronted the deadly COVID-19 virus in Iowa.

Given my inability to go out during the COVID-19 pandemic due to my multiple underlying medical issues, I am enormously grateful to Greater Des Moines Partnership CEO Jay Byers, Chief Strategy Officer Tiffany Tauscheck (and her husband Mark) and Vice President of Communications Courtney Shaw, for facilitating my donation of these masks to UnityPoint and MercyOne Hospitals to aid the doctors, nurses and medical professionals on the frontlines confronting that insidious coronavirus. One aspect that made this contribution even more meaningful to me is that my son, Dr.Davin Quinn, is currently part of the COVID-19 Reaction Team at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

In conclusion, I want to share a story that perhaps best captures the significance of these gestures by my Chinese contacts. While visiting the SFLS in Hebei, I was given the privilege of planting a cherry tree on its campus. This year, the marvelous Principal of that school, Ms. Pei Hongxia, sent me a photo of "my tree," which she said " ... symbolizes the sincere friendship between us." That tree, like the special relationship between the people of Iowa and people of China, has deep roots, is thriving and will, I hope, continue to grow far into the future, despite any turbulence between our two governments.

Planting a Tree
 Cherry Tree


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Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn

Following 32 years as an American diplomat, including serving as U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, in 2000 Ken Quinn became president of the World Food Prize Foundation. Over 20 years he endeavored to fulfill the vision of Dr. Norman Borlaug and John Ruan Sr. that it could become the "Nobel Prize for Food and Agriculture."