China's decision to send Vice Premier Li Peng to the funeral of Soviet president Konstantin Chernenko appears to reflect Peking's efforts to groom a new generation of leaders at a time when Moscow has just begun a generational transition of its own.
Li Peng, 56, will be the first Chinese to meet the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, 54.
Li is a hard-driving technocrat typical of a new breed of Chinese leaders who are gradually emerging on the world scene. He is the kind of administrator on whom China's aging top leaders seem to be counting to make their economic modernization program succeed. Diplomats view him as a possible candidate some day for one of the very highest posts, most likely prime minister.
China's leading nuclear power expert, Vice Premier Li is known for his professional and administrative competence. Unlike some of the nation's older revolutionary leaders who gained their credentials through military or ideological struggles, Li was trained as an electrical engineer and rose through a succession of technical and administrative posts to reach in 1983 his current high-ranking position.
Diplomats speculate that by sending Li to Moscow, the Chinese can make a serious offer to improve further relations with the Soviets while at the same time not appearing to be overeager. The Chinese could have sent a higher ranking vice premier, namely Wan Li, the senior vice premier who attended the funeral of the late president Yuri Andropov in early 1984. Of China's four vice premiers, Li Peng is ranked third. But sending a rising star to Moscow does not necessarily represent a downgrading of relations with the Soviets.
There is a certain logic in the choice of Li Peng. He knows the Soviet Union, having studied there from 1948 to 1954. He has been designated to head the Chinese delegation to joint economic commission talks with the Soviets later this year. The Moscow trip will give Li added exposure to the world of diplomacy.
Li is gradually accumulating experience in foreign affairs. In 1983, he went as a vice minister to Hong Kong to negotiate with a British delegation over the construction of a nuclear power station in China. In 1984, he traveled as vice premier to West Germany and four African nations.
Although he is a technocrat, Li has revolutionary credentials. His father reportedly was a "revolutionary martyr" in the struggle against the Chinese Nationalists. Following the father's death, the late premier Chou En-lai took a protective interest in the young Li Peng.
Li Peng is known to be one of the hardest working Chinese officials. "He gives the impression of being an efficient, no-nonsense kind of person," said a diplomat who has been in meetings with Li Peng.
He is also a reform-minded leader who strongly supported the introduction of economic incentives to modernize the Chinese economy. In January, Li Peng said, in regard to industrial designers, that those who make bigger contributions should be paid more.