Tacoma’s Lincoln High School played proud host to the Chinese president Wednesday evening, then received a surprise gift: an invitation for 100 students to visit China.

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TACOMA — Chinese President Xi Jinping came to Lincoln High School bearing gifts.

There were books and pingpong accessories, displayed behind Xi on Wednesday night as he spoke before an audience of several hundred in the school’s auditorium.

And then the Chinese president — collar open, no tie, end of a long day — invited 100 Lincoln High students to visit China next year. Through travel, “you will know China better, and hopefully you will fall in love with China,” Xi said. The audience, students and dignitaries, and Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, cheered.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited to Lincoln High School in Tacoma, bringing gifts and inviting 100 students to visit China next year. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

It was a light moment for Xi in a heavy visit to the United States, full of meetings with governors and CEOs over the past two days that will continue in Washington, D.C., with talk on weightier issues.

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China and the United States remain at odds over economic tensions, computer hacking, human-rights concerns, the pressures on foreign nonprofit organizations in China, and the country’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea, where shipping lanes cement global trade.

Xi’s visit jammed up highways for a second straight day. And a few hundred demonstrators waited for him in Tacoma outside the school, protesting everything from China’s record on religious freedoms to the country’s growing regional presence in Asia.

But pressing geopolitical concerns were left at the door of Lincoln High’s gymnasium Wednesday, Xi’s first stop at the school. Players of the school’s football team presented Xi with a jersey bearing his name and No. 1 — and made small talk through a translator.

They even talked a little football, according to Dionte Simon, a 17-year-old running back with the Lincoln Abes.

“He said he watched one football game once before, he said in like ’93, between UW and somebody else,” said Simon, who described himself as exuberant over the visit. “I don’t think that’s ever going to happen to me again.”

Xi may have seen that game when he first visited Tacoma in 1993 as a lower-level party official. That visit came just a year before Tacoma and Fuzhou, the city where Xi lived at the time, became sister cities.

Between his stops in the gym and the auditorium, Xi visited a classroom, where he said he met students, he said, eager to learn about Chinese civilization.

But the subject of China stirred more agitated feelings Wednesday outside the school. Throngs of protesters ringed nearby street corners, including Falun Gong practitioners demonstrating for religious freedom in China and Vietnamese immigrants with concerns about China’s growing power in Asia. Some chanted “Down with Red China,” and some carried signs reading “Boycott made in China.”

Kim Nguyen, a 63-year-old retired custodian originally from Vietnam, was protesting the visit. He said he worried about China taking away American jobs.

Laura Gu, 50, came up from California to help hold banners, such as the one that read, “Stop the persecution of Falun Gong.”

About a dozen people with Chinese flags and pro-Xi posters mingled outside the school, which incensed the anti-Chinese government crowd. A handful of Vietnamese protesters crowded the pro-Chinese government group against the wall of the school as both groups yelled slogans at each other. Some people screamed, “Get out, China,” and a man led a chant of, “Red China, stop invading Vietnam.”

A few minutes later, the school bell rang to end the day early, sending hundreds of Lincoln students pouring onto the sidewalks and into the middle of the protests.

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Some students followed along with the arguing demonstrators, others joked and took selfies with chanting protesters in the background.

A block away, the commotion could barely be heard by Korlina Wilkinson, a 50-year-old Tacoma resident who works in construction. Outside clearing morning glories from her yard, Wilkinson said she’d heard of the visit on the news and had seen some protesters walking by.

Wilkinson said she didn’t like that China makes so much of the things Americans buy. But, “It’s nice that we’re giving their dignitaries the same respect that they give us there.”