Iowa politicians should leave the kids alone

Ed Tibbetts, a longtime reporter and editor in the Quad-Cities, is the publisher of the Along the Mississippi newsletter, where this article first appeared. Find more of his work at

In some parts of Iowa, road signs greet visitors with our new state slogan: “Iowa, Freedom to Flourish.”

Some Republican lawmakers obviously don’t get the concept.

U.S. Representatives Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Ashley Hinson and State Representative Taylor Collins have all been wringing their hands recently over trips that some students and staff from Muscatine High School took to China.

China apparently paid the costs, according to a recent article in the right-wing British newspaper, the Daily Mail, and that has triggered the Iowa Republicans. Now, there’s talk of stopping these visits.

Miller-Meeks called China a national security threat and said the trips were a “bridge too far.”

In an interview on Fox Business, where one of the hosts asked about the trips, including whether they should be banned, Hinson said a committee in Congress is investigating.

Meanwhile, Collins announced that during next year’s legislative session he’s going to introduce legislation to stop “this kind of infiltration by the Chinese Communist Party into Iowa’s classrooms.”

So much for freedom-loving Republicans.

I’d like to think an attempt to limit a citizen’s right to travel overseas would fail, even in the Iowa legislature. But as we’ve seen recently, Republicans in this state like to use the power of government to impose their priorities on Iowans in ways that mock that cheery new slogan greeting visitors.

A prime example: The book ban Republicans put in place—and a federal judge blocked—that violates the rights of students, even high schoolers, to read what they want. Lawmakers also have censored teachers and restricted what had been a rather robust right of Iowans to vote by mail, among other limitations.

As I’ve said before, freedom in Iowa is a commodity and the party in power today sees itself as its chief distributor.

As for the student trips, Muscatine has longstanding ties to China and its leader, Xi Jinping. Xi first visited in 1985 and has maintained ties to the area ever since.

In 2012, the then-vice president of China came back to Muscatine and was greeted with open arms, including by top Republicans.

“We consider you a great friend of Iowa,” then-Gov. Terry Branstad told Xi at a gathering at the Muscatine home of Roger and Sarah Lande.

It’s not like China wasn’t a national security challenge back then. Its human rights violations were also clearly evident. There were demonstrations in Muscatine that day highlighting Chinese repression. Even so, Branstad and Xi later raised glasses to one another and enjoyed a gala dinner in the state Capitol. 

I don’t recall any Republicans worrying then that Xi and China were using Iowa’s governor as a propaganda tool.

I do remember, later, a lot of coverage in the media about Branstad’s long “friendship” with Xi when he was appointed ambassador to China, and how it was a plus for the US. Even Donald Trump cited it as an asset.

I also remember a Foreign Policy article suggesting that, at least in terms of real-world international relations, all this talk of Branstad’s friendship with Xi was meaningless.

Propaganda, you might say.

The Muscatine school visits appear to stem from Xi’s remarks on a trip last year to San Francisco where he said he wanted to invite 50,000 American students to his country over the next five years.

According to a Des Moines Register article from January, Sarah Lande reached out to the Chinese leader, whom she’s known for nearly 40 years, writing that she hoped his invitation would include students from Muscatine.

Xi responded positively, and the Register reported that 24 students from Muscatine and four staff went to China.

According to the Daily Mail, the visits yielded praise for the country and gratitude to China’s leader. This seems to have set off at least some of the criticism.

The school district issued a statement to media in the Quad-Cities responding to the controversy that made it clear it understands the political and economic differences between the two countries but also recognizes the value of student exchanges in “fostering understanding, empathy, and valuable perspectives that extend far beyond the classroom.”

Lande, meanwhile, issued her own statement recognizing “these educational exchanges supported by the Chinese government are part of China’s soft power promoting their country along with friendship and understanding.” In Muscatine, she added,

Our people fund reciprocal exchanges. Should our students and educators take part in this opportunity with their eyes open? Yes! These exchanges have brought life changing experiences to students. Knowledge is freedom to make wise decisions. These are the values upon which America was founded. We are part of worldwide competition, cooperation and interconnection. Citizens need to know and understand each other to find a way to work together and avoid conflict.

Both statements are posted to KWQC-TV’s website.

In my opinion, these statements exhibit the kind of realistic, eyes-open commitment to mutual understanding between nations that are a credit to these Iowans and consistent with our state’s heritage. It would be a shame if reactionary lawmakers were to interfere; if they were to try to undermine the right of Iowa students to have these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

Nobody should be naïve about China, or the kind of leader Xi Jinping is. But neither should we crawl into an isolationist hole and, in the process, violate the rights of young adults to travel on the questionable assumption that they’ll let themselves be used as pawns.

That’s not the kind of state that trusts its citizens to do the right thing. It’s not the kind of state that gives them the freedom to flourish.

About the Author(s)

Ed Tibbetts

  • Student “field trips”

    Congresswoman MMM and her acolytes use every wedge issue in the book to rally and rile their base. This includes spawning fear of the ”other,” including brown-skinned migrants. I would hope Muscatine students are both educated and articulate about the unique and precious democracy Americans are in the process of inventing. I also hope students travel for sight seeing, making life-time memories, and appreciation of a huge, very old culture, much older than the USA and most of Europe.

  • Agreed with Mr Ott

    Only bigots would prevent kids from this rare opportunity to experience a foreign country.

  • Per the quotation from this post that is pasted below...

    …I would point out to elected officials that the same principle should apply regarding the educational materials about industrial agriculture that are supplied to Iowa teachers and pupils by the program “Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation,” which is sponsored by the Iowa Farm Bureau and commodity groups. I’m thinking, for example, of the lesson plan titled “Farmers are Superheroes, Too!”

    “Should our students and educators take part in this opportunity with their eyes open? Yes!”