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Exclusive Q&A: U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad

Today, freshly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad officially resigned as governor of Iowa, handing over his title to the state’s lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds.

After spending nearly his entire life in the state of Iowa, Branstad will be China’s newest resident as he strives to build bridges with a complicated country and, he hopes, stand up for American farmers.

As the longest-serving governor in the U.S., Branstad served Iowa off and on through the farm crisis of the 1980s and through 2013’s period of skyrocketing crop prices. He’s seen his agricultural state face triumphs and trials. As a farm kid himself, he seems to understand the concerns on farmers’ hearts. 

When it comes to agriculture, Branstad is focusing on key areas such as transparency, trade regulation, U.S. beef exports, and GMO conflicts.

With his bags packed and passport ready for fresh stamps, we sat down with the ambassador and asked him 10 questions about China. 

SF: How many times have you been to China?  
TB: I’ve been there six times. The first time was in 1984 in late September/early October.

SF: How well do you know President Xi?
TB: I was the first American governor he met on his very first trip to America on April 29, 1985. He was very impressed with the friendliness and hospitality of Iowans. He went to a birthday party, had many family dinners in homes, went out on the Mississippi River, visited a turkey farm, saw the president of the Corn Growers, Jack Kintzle, planting corn. All of that, I think, made a really positive impression. In fact, when I came back as governor in 2011, he had the itinerary from his 1985 trip and he mentioned all those Iowans by name.

SF: Are you, personally, recognized in China?
TB: I’m treated like a celebrity in China. Not just me, but all the Iowans he met. The Chinese people know all about the fact that their leader came to Iowa first and that he was treated really well here, that I was governor at the time. So I’ve gotten unbelievably positive press in China – especially in their big newspaper, The China Daily, but also in television and other media sources. So, being an old friend of the leader of China is definitely an asset.

SF: Is the One China Policy locked in or is it flexible?
TB: It is something that was essential in order for the United States to be able to get the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China. They consider Taiwan to be a province of China, and we had to accept the One China policy. We do not have an ambassador in Taiwan, although we do have an informal relationship with Taiwan. The country is an ally. We do sell it military equipment. It also trades with us. It’s a delicate issue and one that has to be handled very carefully, and I recognize that. Obviously, my role as the ambassador to China will be to work with the People’s Republic of China. I also know that we have a good relationship with Taiwan, even though it doesn’t have an ambassador and it’s not an officially recognized nation. 

Terry Branstad 6: Getting Transparency from China

SF: What’s your favorite food in China?
TB: The country is famous for its Peking duck. The one bad thing when you’re the leader of the delegation is that you’re supposed to eat the duck brain, which is not one of my favorite things. 

SF: How many people are employed by the U.S. embassy in China?
TB: There are over 2,000 people employed by the embassy. There’s an embassy in Beijing and five consulates throughout China – it’s a big group. I hope to visit all the consulates and go to every province in China during the time that I’m an ambassador.

SF: Is it safe to walk the streets there?
TB: They tell me it’s very safe. There’s a park really close to the ambassador’s residence. My predecessor, Max Baucus, and his wife spent three hours with my wife and me and told us it is so safe that they could even go to this park at night. It’s very close to the residence and the embassy is about 4 miles away. The traffic can be pretty bad, though. 

SF: What will you miss about living in the U.S. when you’re in China?
TB: The people. I love Iowa. I’m a lifelong Iowan, except for my two years when I was in the Army, and I enjoy going to all 99 counties and seeing the sites and visiting with the people of Iowa. Actually, though, that’s an asset that I think has made this opportunity available for me. Because Iowans treated Xi Jinping so well on his first visit to America, he has really positive feelings about Iowa and its people. I just happen to have been the governor when this all started. So, I hope we can build on that long-standing friendship that we established back in 1985. 

Terry Branstad 3: China and Ethanol

SF: Do you know any Mandarin? 
TB: Ni hao (hello) and Xièxiè (thank you), but that’s about it. I hope to learn a lot more, but that’s about all I know so far.

SF: Will you get to know Chinese farmers when you’re living there?
TB: I certainly intend to do that. On previous trips, I’ve gotten an opportunity to get out in the countryside and visit with Chinese farmers. That’s something I think is important. I grew up on a farm, so agriculture is in my blood. I want to be able to get to know and relate directly with farmers in China, as well.

SF Bio

Name: Terry Branstad
Home: Des Moines, Iowa
Title: U.S. Ambassador to China
Background: Branstad was born and raised on a farm in Leland, Iowa. After graduating from high school, he earned a degree in political science from the University of Iowa, then was drafted and served as a military policeman for the U.S. Army in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Following his service, Branstad went on to get his juris doctorate from Drake Law School. He jumped into Iowa politics right away, serving three terms in the Iowa House of Representatives, then as lieutenant governor of Iowa, and later as governor of Iowa for an unprecedented six nonconsecutive terms. He also served as president of Des Moines University for six years in the early 2000s. 

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