Tesla’s Elon Musk Got a Rare Welcome on His China Visit This Week. Why This Matters

April 27, 2017, 6:11 AM UTC

Elon Musk made an unexpected visit to China this week. Late on Tuesday night, China’s official news agency tweeted a photo of the Tesla chief chatting with Vice Premier Wang Yang, one of the country’s top officials in charge of the economy, in what a close watcher of China’s automotive industry says may go down as a breakthrough meeting.

Tesla (TSLA) is riding high in China. Sales there tripled to more than $1 billion last year, the company said in March. Vehicle exports to China rose 376% year-over-year in the first two months of 2017, according to researcher JL Warren Capital.

But Tesla remains far from making China its biggest market, which Musk had predicted could someday happen. The $1 billion in China revenue in 2016 compared to $4.2 billion in the U.S.

Which is why Musk’s latest photo opportunity is important. This is the first time the powerful Vice Premier Wang has ever met an automotive CEO like Musk alone, said Li Anding, Xinhua’s former automotive reporter who now consults automakers on releases in China.

“Wang usually meets with groups of people,” Li said. The one-on-one meeting sends a message of Tesla’s importance in China, whose politicians consider the California company a role model for the country’s new electric car companies, as many vehicles suffer from long charging times and a poor driving experience, he explained.

Li also predicts that the meeting means Tesla is moving closer to signing a joint venture with a Chinese automaker to produce cars locally. Today, 25% tariffs on Tesla’s imported cars inflate its sticker prices, despite the company charging the same for cars in China as it does in its home country. This stands in contrast to some of the German luxury makers, which have been accused of ripping off and overcharging consumers. A joint venture would likely improve Tesla’s affordability in China.

Li says it’s tough predicting the timing of a joint venture. But Tesla is in the midst of meeting potential partners from different Chinese cities, according to one high-level official from China’s auto lobby who spoke to Fortune. Musk’s meeting with Wang, a former leader of Guangdong province, throws fresh speculation on its potential partner, as Guangdong is one of China’s many automotive hubs.

Musk has appeared in lots of photos lately. But his latest shot coming out of China might be Tesla’s most important sighting in a while.