Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping -- the next expected leader of China -- is taking his biggest step yet onto the world stage by visiting the White House on February 14 for talks with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Obama's aides don't expect the talks to result in many formal agreements, if any. Rather, they expect the leaders to size each other up and start to establish a personal relationship.
Xi, 58, is slated to become general secretary of China's ruling Communist Party later this year before taking over the presidency in March 2013. His visit to the United States has been carefully choreographed by Beijing as a rite of passage in China's once-in-a-decade leadership transition.
Xi is considered to be a Communist Party "princeling" as the son of one of the founders of the Communist guerrilla movement in northern China -- revolutionary leader Xi Zhongxun.
But his father's fall from grace during the so-called Cultural Revolution forced Xi to grow up in provincial areas where he was exposed, more than his technocratic predecessors, to the hardships faced by ordinary Chinese.
Garrie van Pinxteren, an expert on China and a visiting senior research fellow at the Netherlands' Clingendael Institute of International Relations, says the Cultural Revolution experience appears to have contributed to Xi's character as a modern political leader.
"He is one of the most successful of what you would call the 'communist princelings.' His father fell out of grace. People who have fallen out of grace -- and the experience also of children of people who have fallen out of grace -- [often are] more independent of present political stances and present political powers than other people might be," Van Pinxteren says.
"What is known about Xi Jinping is that he seems to be relatively little affected by the high standing of his office -- that he is a more or less down-to-earth, pragmatic leader who gets things done," she adds.
Van Pinxteren says a general air of secrecy that surrounds China's ruling elite makes it difficult to confirm reports that Xi worked as a common laborer during his youth. But she says the scenario, if true, would explain why he has become known for taking a tough stance against corruption and is more open about political and market-economy reforms than previous Chinese leaders.
"Contrary to many other, what you'd call 'communist princelings,' he has not dirtied his hands. As far as we know, he has not been involved in corruption. But on the contrary, he has been active in fighting corruption," Van Pinxteren says.
"That makes him an eligible candidate for the party because the Chinese Communist Party at this time sees corruption as one of the greatest dangers -- even for the continuation of the rule of the Communist Party," she notes. "It will also make him a more believable figure for the common Chinese people."
Xi's father had been the deputy prime minister of China from 1959 to 1962 -- years of economic regression under the failed "Great Leap Forward" campaign of social and economic transition that resulted in tens of millions of deaths.
Fell Out Of Favor
It was during the mid-1960s, when Xi was still a preteen, that his father fell out of favor with the Communist Party and was accused of disloyalty to Chairman Mao Tse-tung. As a result, Xi's father was first sent to work in a factory and then jailed in 1968.
Without the protection of his father, Xi went to work in 1969 as part of Mao's "Down to the Countryside Movement." Xi joined the Communist Youth League in 1971 and then the Communist Party in 1974.
After studying chemical engineering at Beijing's Tsinghua University in the late 1970s, Xi gained military background by working as the secretary for his father's former subordinate, Geng Biao, who was secretary-general of China's Central Military Commission.
By then, Xi's father had been released from prison and had taken a post as governor of Guangdong Province on the coast of the South China Sea.
Toured The Midwest
Xi's political career began in earnest in 1982 at the local level, taking him through Communist Party posts in four different provinces.
In 1985, while still a provincial official, Xi made his first visit to the United States -- touring small towns in Iowa as well as stopping in Los Angeles.
In 1987, he married the famous Chinese folk singer Peng Liyuan, his second marriage. Their daughter, Xi Mingze, enrolled as a freshman at Harvard University under a pseudonym in the autumn of 2010.
At the time of their marriage, Peng was a household name in China and better known to the Chinese public than Xi.
His path to power in the 1980s and 1990s continued to take him through provincial posts and governorships until he broke into national politics in 2002 by becoming a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee.
"Time" magazine has named Xi one the world's most influential people. He became vice president in October 2007. He also now serves as the top-ranking member of the secretariat of the Communist Party, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and president of the Central Party School.
Written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports