It's not often that the Chinese Communist Party allows a former "class enemy" to travel to the West's strongest democracy, much less entrusts him with repairing ties to the United States.
Yet that is precisely the mission that Beijing has placed on the shoulders of Zhu Rongji, whose rise from political outcast to premier reflects China's moves toward a post-revolutionary society and its potential to forge closer links with the West.
Premier Zhu, who now heads the reform faction of the party, "is probably the best face the party can project to the West," says a Western official. If Zhu had been born in the US, the official muses, "his intelligence and straightforwardness, combined with his political skills, could just as likely have fueled his rise through the American political system."
The jocular, media-friendly Zhu is likely to draw on every one of those skills on his nine-day, six-city tour of the US.
During the visit, which began Tuesday in Los Angeles, Zhu will be forced to become something like a human minesweeper, defusing potentially explosive disputes over Beijing's human rights policies, allegations over the theft of American technology, and Chinese opposition to NATO's attack on Yugoslavia.
"Zhu is not going to wipe out the anti-China sentiment in Congress over the course of a week," says the Western official. "But during that time he can give the American public a glimpse of the moderate, forward-looking side of the [Communist] Party."
If the Chinese premier is running a political obstacle course in the US, he probably faces an equally daunting array of hurdles at home. Zhu is in charge of jettisoning large chunks of China's Soviet-model economy in favor of a system that is more responsive to market forces.
At the same time, Zhu is overseeing perhaps the largest government downsizing in Chinese history in a bid to make the bureaucracy more efficient and professional. He is "making a lot of enemies within the government and among workers who are being laid off from state-run firms," says Gao Xin, a Chinese scholar who has written several books on the Chinese leadership.
Opposition within the party's conservative wing to Zhu's pro- market economic policies and pro-Western outlook has fueled rumors in the Chinese capital that some of the premier's colleagues hope a disastrous US visit could pave the way for his ultimate ouster.
Although many Chinese and American analysts say that outcome is unlikely, Zhu's penchant for speaking out on the failures of Marxist economics has in the past cost him dearly.
Zhu "is the only member of the senior leadership to have been branded a rightist" during one of the party's earliest political purges in 1957, says Mr. Gao, a former university lecturer in Beijing who now writes from exile in Cambridge, Mass.
Zhu's fall from grace, triggered when he issued a minor criticism of the party's radical economic policies, lasted for nearly two decades. He was "reeducated" by being sent to the countryside to raise swine.
One of Zhu's "political offenses" was probably his engineering degree from the American-founded Qinghua University in Beijing, and his fate was matched by millions of other educated Chinese who were persecuted during Chairman Mao Zedong's radical, xenophobic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
Yet just as Zhu's descent marked the chaos and anti-intellectual bias of Mao's reign, so his rise over the last decade has mirrored the party's recognition that economic modernization will depend on a highly trained elite and opening to the West. Western businessmen who have met with Zhu say that, unlike many of his Soviet-trained colleagues, Zhu has an extensive understanding of sophisticated capitalist financial systems. When talent and economic know-how began replacing unquestioned fealty in the recruiting of leaders in the 1980s, Zhu's star began rising through China's political firmament.
And Zhu, who converses in fluent English with Western leaders on topics ranging from economic globalization to the emerging Internet society, is widely praised by university students and professionals here as one of the most cosmopolitan leaders in Chinese history.
A reforner and a Communist
"Zhu Rongji can never publicly say that he wants to move China further and further away from its communist roots," says a young software engineer who asked not to be identified. "But his entire economic and government restructuring drives are aimed at steering China in the direction of the capitalist West," he adds.
Yet it is unclear whether Zhu backs political as well as economic reform.
During the Chinese Army's 1989 attack on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing, Zhu, then mayor of Shanghai, used more peaceful methods to clear protesters from his city's streets.
"Zhu pleaded with the protesters [in Shanghai] to peacefully disperse, and he said that history would ultimately judge the rightness of the Tiananmen Square incident," says the Western official.
Yet since then, Zhu has been fighting a rear-guard action against being labeled the party's would-be destroyer.
Zhu's protg, current Shanghai Mayor Xu Kuangdi, said in an interview last year that during one trip to the US, "Many American media began calling Zhu Rongji China's Gorbachev - that created heavy pressure on Zhu when he returned to China."
While former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is perceived in the West as a hero for helping liberate Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from communism, he is officially reviled here for the same reason. Being branded a would-be Gorbachev here is akin to receiving a political death warrant, says the Western official.
Perhaps still scarred by his lengthy internal exile to a pig farm, Zhu rarely makes public comments on China's one-party system. Many analysts say they must read the tea leaves to try to chart his political leanings.
Against violent suppression
During a recent speech before China's legislature, Zhu said "we must not use dictatorial means" to suppress unrest among disgruntled farmers, unemployed workers, and others who have suffered under Beijing's economic reforms.
"Zhu knows that using violence against the discontented could trigger a wider social explosion," and he represents a strong force for moderation, says the Western official. Zhu also likely backs a "gradualist approach toward political reform in China," he adds.
"The Chinese leadership learned from the Russian example that rapid political change can create more chaos than good," he says. Instead, "Zhu Rongji is helping to create a market economy and a legal system that could pave the way for democratization sometime in the future," he adds.