MUSCATINE, Iowa — Like Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger before him, Muscatine Mayor DeWayne Hopkins enjoyed some ping-pong diplomacy during last week’s trip to China.

Hopkins came home Sunday with several souvenirs, including ping-pong paddles signed by each of China’s recent Olympic gold-medal winners.

Ping-pong diplomacy refers to the early 1970s exchange of ping-pong players between the China and U.S., which paved the way for President Nixon to visit Chairman Mao Zedong in 1972.

Muscatine’s Sarah Lande, Deb Hutton and Tony Joseph accompanied Hopkins on the trip, designed to lead to further cultural and educational exchanges as well as increased business opportunities.

Albert Liu, Musco Lighting’s director of Asian sales, organized the trip and accompanied the four.

According to Lande, “We were amazed that the people we visited all were so aware of Muscatine’s relationship with Xi Jinping,” China’s presumed next leader, who was being installed as head of China’s Communist Party during their time there and was unable to see the group.

But U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke did meet the Muscatine delegation during its first full day in China.

“He is a force in that building,” Hopkins said. “He doesn’t even see visiting governors.”

Added Joseph, who leads the Mayor’s Muscatine-China Initiatives Committee and is president of Joseph Industries: “The U.S. Embassy was very good to us, showing us how to present ourselves to investors. Everybody comes to China armed with, ‘We have good, hard-working people.’ Who doesn’t have that? They want lists with specific dollar amounts (for proposed projects) with a menu of what they can invest in. They helped us put our best foot forward.”

Hutton, president of Muscatine Sister Cities, said she “felt like a diplomat” at every stop, including visits to three schools and to China’s Zhengding County, where a letter was signed by Mayor Yang to establish a Sister City relationship and start multiple exchange programs, including study-abroad opportunities for both Chinese and U.S. students.

One possible impediment to Chinese students studying for a time in the U.S., Hutton said, is their unwillingness “to miss even one day of class. That is something we are going to have to work out.”

According to Lande — whom Hopkins called “a rock star in China” owing to her longtime friendship with China’s next leader — Hopkins himself made many new friends in China “because he speaks from his heart. He and the mayor of Zhengding had wonderful rapport. (Hopkins) loves life, and Muscatine couldn’t have a better ambassador.”

Xi visited Muscatine in 1985 as a provincial agriculture official. He returned in February of this year to visit the home of Roger and Sarah Lande and his other “Old Friends” from 1985.

At one stop last week, Li Xiaolin, president of the Chinese Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries — and the daughter of Li Xiannian, former president of China — presented Hopkins and the others with a coffee and ice cream drink she called Falling in Love.

“I think she wants me,” the married mayor joked to his equally married hostess, and the phrase became “our standard joke” through the rest of the trip.

“For the benefit of the reporters present,” Hopkins said with a laugh, “Madam Li made it clear that Falling in Love was just the name of a drink.”

“Just about everybody we came in contact with has a sense of humor,” Hopkins added. “It took only about 10 minutes to break the ice.”

The group also toured an HNI Corp. plant and met with Musco Lighting’s sales team. Emily Lofgren of Muscatine, who is in China teaching English, took a 10-hour train ride just to meet with the delegation.

“We made her an honorary member of the delegation,” Hopkins said.

Now that they’re back, the four Muscatine travelers are considering the next steps in Muscatine’s flourishing relationship with China. The delegation will present a report noon today to the Mayor’s Muscatine-China Initiatives Committee at Muscatine Community College.

“There are so many opportunities to take that next step in our relationship,” said Lande, who has been to China five times previously. “We want to be good examples for our country and foster good things for our community.”

“There are a lot of opportunities for small and big companies alike,” Joseph said. “It will take some effort, because their business practices are a little different. Nothing good comes easy.”