BEIJING — In January 1979, shortly after he rose to power as paramount leader of China, Deng Xiaoping visited the United States. While there, he defined the direction he would take the country, donning a cowboy hat and symbolically steering away from the Soviet Union-which he never visited as China's ruler-and toward the markets of the West.
But Xi Jinping, who completed his formal leadership ascension by being crowned president on Thursday (he was appointed chairman of the Communist Party and head of the military in November), is heading first to Moscow.
Will Xi's late March trip to Vladimir Putin's Russia -- a bastion of authoritarian state capitalism -- symbolically define China's path ahead, like Deng's U.S. tour?
It's too early to say, but he's certainly taking care to make it a success.
Xi has been brushing up on his rudimentary Russian, which he learned at Beijing's most exclusive school, No. 101, when it was reserved for the children of high ranking leaders. He has even been rehearsing Russian poetry to impress his hosts, according to one of his close associates.
And he has sought the assistance of his female friend Li Xiaolin, a princeling -- the term used for the children of high-ranking officials -- who heads a ministry-level back-channel diplomatic organization called the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, according to the close associate. Li's father, Li Xiannian, worked closely with Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, when both men were vice premiers in the 1950s. Li's husband Gen. Liu Yazhou is an important confidante of Xi's.
One of Li's aides has been seconded to the economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission, from where she had been shuttling between Beijing and Moscow to prepare a huge new oil and gas supply deal to sweeten Xi's arrival.
Whether Russia can open an energy artery to China will depend, essentially, on price. For years, the two countries have been negotiating deals that would double China's imports of Russian oil, making it less dependent on the Persian Gulf and East Africa. The two countries are also planning a huge new joint investment fund, with Li's aide penciled in to be vice chair, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Whether or not the deals come through, Xi's use of Li shows how networks of the red aristocracy enable him to work around the Communist Party's sometimes sclerotic bureaucracy.