Gifts, popsicles and mass: Chinese villagers recall Biden's 2001 visit

Then US Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden (right) joking with villagers in Yanzikou, on Aug 10, 2001. PHOTO: AFP
Villagers looking at 2001 photos of then-US Senator Joe Biden visiting their village, in Yanzikou, on Nov 10, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (AFP) - Nearly two decades ago, the residents of a small Chinese village near Beijing were visited by a foreigner who is soon to become America's most powerful man: Joe Biden.

In August 2001, now President-elect Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he made an official visit to China and stopped at the village of Yanzikou, talking with villagers and buying ice creams for the children.

Ms Tang Shaojun, then aged 21, was at home caring for her two-month-old son when the foreign officials came knocking - a rare sight at the time in rural China.

"I think they chose to visit us because our house was the poorest and shabbiest in the village at the time," she told AFP from her home in the village, which has since been rebuilt and is now filled with plants and mahogany furniture.

"We didn't even have a refrigerator or modern appliances. We had no gas stove and had to cook on a coal stove. Flies were buzzing everywhere," her husband Liu Changkai, 40, added.

Mr Biden held her infant son in his arms and gave him a kiss - before leaving 200 yuan hidden under a kitchen cleaver as a parting gift the family discovered later.

"He said he will come and visit again in future, and remarked that he had a granddaughter around the same age," Ms Tang recalled this week, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned "Gucci" and standing below an ornamental picture of Chairman Mao Zedong, founder of communist China.

"We were certainly very excited... I then thought that foreigners were pretty great and didn't discriminate against Chinese people," added Mr Liu.

'I wish him luck'

The couple didn't realise that the man who had visited back then was actually incoming US President Joe Biden until AFP reporters took archive photos of his 2001 visit to show them this week.

In the decades since, rapid economic growth in China has changed much of the country beyond recognition.

Many of the old stone shacks in Yanzikou have been torn down and redeveloped into two-storey dwellings or guesthouses which cater to tourists visiting the nearby Great Wall, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Most residents have a dim recollection of events, but AFP photos taken at the time show children and adults gathered around a smiling Mr Biden.

He also visited the village church and received mass from the priest at the time.

"He was very friendly and intimate, greeting all the Chinese people... He bought one or two popsicles for the kids," recalled farmer Li Hua, 57, who featured in one of the photos.

Mr Gao Shan, who now works in sales and still lives in Yanzikou, was nine when he was pictured shaking hands with Mr Biden during the latter's visit to the village on Aug 10, 2001. PHOTOS: AFP

One of the children, Gao Shan, was nine when he was pictured shaking hands with the US President-to-be - and remembers Mr Biden joking that perhaps Gao would become the leader of China one day.

"Back then, he wished me well, and now he will become the next President - that's awesome," said 29-year-old Gao, who works in sales and still lives in the village.

"I wish him luck."

Mr Liu said he feels "very proud" that Mr Biden visited his village.

"If they don't cause trouble with China, they can come back anytime."

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