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In his father’s footsteps, Justin Trudeau is looking to be big in China

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau removes a translation aid at news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press via AP)

BEIJING — Justin Trudeau understands optics.

The selfie-snapping Canadian prime minister has never met a camera he doesn’t like, and per his many fans, the feeling is mutual.

It’s no surprise, then, that Trudeau's first trip to China as leader has become a show staged to maximize the setting, cast — and maybe the plot as well.

This is not the first trip for a Trudeau to China. Like Chinese President Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau is a princeling who walks and rules in the shadow of his well-known dad. Justin Trudeau's father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, served as Canadian prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and 1980 to 1984, visiting China several times.

Trudeau the elder earned the affection of China’s leaders by recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1970 — nine years before the United States. He made an official visit in 1973, meeting with Chairman Mao after marathon talks with with Premier Zhou Enlai.

On that landmark tour, he praised Mao and his heirs for creating a system that strives to "provide human dignity and equality of opportunity for the Chinese people” — a comment that no doubt pleased the Communist Party. In November, Xi praised the former leader for “extraordinary political vision."

Trudeau wants that legacy. His messaging this week is all about a "reset" in relations, perhaps because of the scolding that China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, gave a Canadian reporter who dared to ask about human rights during his recent visit to Ottawa.

But for someone set on a "new era" in relations, Trudeau seems to be invoking history at every step. As a boy, Justin Trudeau accompanied his dad to China. And so it is again.

Trudeau landed in Beijing on Tuesday, disembarking after a long flight with his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, and his daughter, Ella-Grace. “In my very first trip to China, I was just a young boy and I was travelling with my father when he was prime minister, and that’s why it is so important to me that on this first trip to China as prime minister I bring my daughter Ella-Grace,” he said.

“The friendship and the openness towards China that my father taught me, I’m certainly hoping to pass on not only to my children but to generations of Canadians in the future.”

In a joint press conference Wednesday with China's premier, Li Keqiang, Trudeau mentioned his father about 20 seconds into his remarks. Li mentioned his dad, too.

The effort has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese. Trudeau's China trip has received mostly favorable coverage in the party-controlled press. A front page story in the English-language edition of China Daily noted that the Canadian leader wore a red tie in a subtle nod to Chinese tradition. (Or to red ties.)

What will that goodwill get him? At Beijing's Great Hall of the People on Wednesday, Trudeau and Li answered questions on a Canadian citizen, Kevin Garratt, who has been indicted on charges of stealing state secrets, as well as a query about a trade dispute involving canola. Neither issue was resolved.

Canada later announced that it hopes to join dozens of other countries in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, or AIIB, a Beijing-backed answer to the World Bank, which the United States has not joined.

From Beijing, Trudeau and his team head to Shanghai, Hangzhou and Hong Kong, where they are expected to focus on trade and investment.

For now, Chinese netizens seem less interested in canola imports than the Canadian prime minister himself, using a popular slang term, "xiao xian rou," or "little fresh meat," to express their admiration.

Trudeau's other nickname, an affectionate play on his surname, seems more apt for a second-generation prime minister on a mission to win hearts: "xiao tudou," or "little potato."

Jin Xin contributed to this report.