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Less than two months after stepping down as prime minister, Jean Chrétien is moving quickly to forge a relationship with China's wealthiest and most powerful business conglomerate.

Making a surprisingly speedy entrance onto the global business stage, Mr. Chrétien will arrive in China this weekend with a team of Power Corp. executives to meet some of China's most influential business leaders.

The visit, his first major overseas trip since his retirement, is being kept hush-hush. Neither the Canadian embassy in Beijing nor his law office in Ottawa is revealing any details of the visit, insisting that it is completely "private."

But The Globe and Mail has learned that much of Mr. Chrétien's tour of Beijing and other Chinese cities over the coming week is being organized by state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corp. CITIC is China's biggest and most powerful conglomerate, with a vast range of interests on four continents.

These include financial services, energy, heavy industry, real estate, hotels, airlines and even military exports.

Established in 1979 and accorded the status of a ministry, CITIC began moving into global ventures in the mid-1980s. With assets of about $48-billion (U.S.), it has close links to the commercial interests of the People's Liberation Army and its leadership answers directly to the State Council, China's supreme executive organ.

Mr. Chrétien is expected to hold meetings with CITIC's top executives, who plan to visit Canada this year. Chinese sources say he also has tentative plans to meet next week with top executives of Unicom, one of China's two main cellphone companies.

He'll be accompanied by his son-in-law, André Desmarais, the president of Power Corp., who is a director of CITIC Pacific Ltd., the Hong Kong affiliate of the CITIC group.

The subject of their meetings is unknown. But Power Corp. has extensive business interests in China, including property development in Shanghai's booming Pudong district and a joint venture with Bombardier to manufacture railway cars in the coastal city of Qingdao.

Sources say Mr. Chrétien is expected to arrive in Beijing on Sunday, attend a cocktail reception with the Canada China Business Council that evening, spend two or three additional days in Beijing, then travel on to Shanghai and the northeastern city of Shenyang, near the border with North Korea.

By moving so quickly into the Chinese business world, Mr. Chrétien will be able to capitalize on his extensive political dealings with Chinese leaders over the past decade. As prime minister he visited China six times, led two Team Canada trade and investment missions to the country and met frequently with its top leaders.

Barely three months ago, he toured China for three days on his final Asian trip as prime minister. And he deliberately chose to meet Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao on his final day in office on Dec. 12.

Since his retirement from politics, Mr. Chrétien has lined up a series of business gigs. He is an international-relations adviser to PetroKazakhstan, a Calgary-based oil company that is trying to expand its oil exports to China and other Asian and Middle Eastern countries. And he has joined three separate law firms: Montreal-based Heenan Blaikie, Calgary-based Bennett Jones, and Montreal-based Desjardins Ducharme Stein Monast.

His speedy return to China has provoked some raised eyebrows in the Canadian business community in Beijing. "I think there should be a cooling-off period," said one Canadian businessman in Beijing, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"There has to be a period of decorum if you're civilized. It's interesting that he's back here so quickly. Considering that he was here in October and hosted Wen on his last day in office, he should have waited."

In Ottawa, the prime ministerial ethics counsellor said there are no guidelines that prevent a former prime minister from taking such a trip. Howard Wilson said there is a two-year "cooling-off" period, but the restrictions apply to lobbying Ottawa or taking jobs with firms with whom the former leader had "direct and significant" official dealings in his final year in office.

Mr. Wilson was ethics counsellor to Mr. Chrétien during his 10 years in office.

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