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38 years after posing at the Golden Gate Bridge, Xi Jinping returns to San Francisco for APEC

China's President Xi Jinping sits at a long table with other people with the American flag in the background
China’s President Xi Jinping will visit the United States during APEC—but he's been here more than eight times before. | Source: Thomas Peter/Getty Images

In the spring of 1985, the goopy charity single “We Are the World” topped the charts, cans of New Coke were sitting unsold in vending machines nationwide and the future president of China first set foot in the United States. 

When 31-year-old Xi Jinping visited America that year, San Francisco was his first stop. Among whatever fond memories he may have brought back with him, one image stands out: a touristy photo of Xi wearing a jacket and tie in front of the city’s most iconic landmark.

The photo, showing a young Xi with a smiley face, the Golden Gate Bridge and a sweeping bay view in the background, was widely circulated on the Chinese language internet after he became the president of China a decade ago. Right before his return to San Francisco this week to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, the image went viral on X (formerly known as Twitter) once again.

Little additional information has become available about that long-ago trip to San Francisco, however. Xi—then a small, rural town’s Communist Party chief—was visiting Muscatine, Iowa, to see the local agriculture industry, and it is believed that he stopped in the Bay Area on a layover.

Now, as one of the most powerful persons in global politics, Xi is expected to come back to San Francisco on Tuesday. His schedule includes a high-profile meeting with President Joe Biden on Wednesday amid a warming U.S.-China relationship.

According to Xinhua News Agency, a Chinese state media outlet, Xi’s 1985 trip helped him to get to know America. He is said to have “fostered friendships with American people” from that moment on. A local Iowa newspaper also featured his delegation in a story from the time headlined “Chinese visitors receive warm welcome.” 

Chinese language websites said Xi was staying with a Muscatine family in a bedroom decorated with Star Trek items. While in Iowa, he watched a basketball game and attended a hog roast and a birthday party.

The president has kept in touch with at least a few people from back then. Some friends from Iowa have been invited to a dinner where Xi will be meeting with U.S. business executives in San Francisco, according to Bloomberg.

Since 1985, Xi has visited the U.S. eight times. His last trip was in 2017 with former President Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He was also in Seattle for a 2015 meeting with the local Chinese community.

It’s still unclear what other events Xi will attend during his multiday trip to the city. Besides the Wednesday meeting with Biden and dinner, he’s scheduled to speak at the APEC summit on Thursday. Different sources confirmed that Chinese international students, alumni of Chinese colleges and Chinatown community leaders have signed up for certain welcome events.

San Francisco is not a typical destination for sitting Chinese leaders to visit—but it’s not unheard of, either. Hu Jintao, Xi’s predecessor, stopped in the city in 2002, where he joined Mayor Willie Brown at a banquet.

Han Li can be reached at

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