Vice-President Xi Jinping will visit the United States this week. But what exactly will he be doing there - apart from visiting a family he stayed with in Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985 when he visited as an agricultural official, and perhaps watching a National Basketball Association match?
Xi has three missions, said Professor Jin Canrong , deputy dean of Renmin University's school of international relations. The first is to 'give a signal' to the US that, however unfavourable its domestic politics are to bilateral relations, China is still willing to maintain good ties.
His second mission is to develop personal friendships with American leaders, so that they can have a better understanding of each other's political agendas 'in the future'. The phrase 'in the future' is important - it is an open secret that, according to leadership succession practice, Xi will take over as secretary general of the Communist Party, it's top official, later this year, but before the US general election. In this context, 'future' means the two countries' political relationship over the next four or five years at least.
And the third mission, Jin said, would be for Xi to gain a better understanding of American society, and to share China's position with more of its people.
Contrary to the good wishes of the professor, the reality is that Sino-US ties, as Deputy Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai recently said more than once, suffers a stubborn 'trust deficit'. On February 3, for instance, Cui told US visitors that in an election year there must be particular vigilance against the tendency to politicise economic and trade issues between the two sides.
A commentary in the official People's Daily on Friday was more pointed. It noted that since the second half of last year, there had been mounting pressure from the US over trade and business relations, the yuan exchange rate and alleged problems in China's investment environment. That pressure was compounded, it said, by a high-profile 'return to Asia' by the US military, with increasing signs that China was being singled out as America's primary rival. 'The strategic misgivings between China and the US, as it were, have never abated,' the commentary said.
It is noteworthy that the People's Daily article was penned by guest commentator Ruan Zongze, a former diplomat who now edits the journal China International Studies. It is published by Foreign Ministry think tank the China Institute of International Studies.
The old problems will not go away easily, as officials have acknowledged. But the commentary was just as quick to point out the new, common problems that were open for more co-operation, among them 'climate, environment, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, public health, energy, internet network security, transnational crime and natural disasters'.
In addition, since much of the world was in the grip of recession, many problems stemming from the financial crisis still had to be dealt with properly, it said.
Some academics, however, are more optimistic. Wu Jianmin , a former ambassador to France and president of the China Foreign Affairs University (which is also linked to the Foreign Ministry), said in Thursday's People's Daily that there was no need to view America's new position on Asia from an old perspective.
Whatever the purpose of Xi's American visit, the fact is that a new generation of Chinese leaders are trying intently to learn more about the country they are going to deal with - and, for that matter, about the entire Western world.
Just as Xi was packing his suitcase, Qiushi, the Communist Party's theoretical journal, reposted on its website last week a partial translation of British historian Niall Ferguson's new book Civilisation: The West and the Rest. It is a lengthy read of more than 20,000 characters.
The whole book was translated in 10 months after its English edition was published in 2011. In the passage, Ferguson - citing Winston Churchill - calls on the West to work with other countries for the benefit of humanity. One wonders whether the passage was meant as part of Xi's reading on his presidential flight.