LIANGJIAHE, China – The next leader of China spent much of his youth living in a dug-out cave.
Xi Jingping's seven years in this remote northern community meant toiling alongside rural villagers by day and sleeping on bricks by night, in stark contrast to his pampered early years in Beijing. He was born into the communist elite, but after his father fell out of favor with Mao Zedong — and before his later rehabilitation, the younger Xi was sent to a rural hinterland to learn peasant virtues at age 15.
The Liangjiahe years are among the scant details known about Xi's life and personality partly because he himself chronicled them as a formative experience. They are part of the vague picture of a man who has drawn little attention during much of his political career but is now poised to become ruling party chief next month and president next year of an increasingly assertive China.
What is clear is that Xi has excelled at quietly rising through the ranks by making the most of two facets: He has an elite, educated background with links to communist China's founding fathers that are a crucial advantage in the country's politics, and at the same time he has successfully cultivated a common man mystique that helps him appeal to a broad constituency. He even gave up a promising Beiing post in his late 20s to go back out to countryside.
He did not at first come willingly, however, to Liangjiahe, a tiny community of cave dwellings dug into arid hills and fronted by dried mud walls with wooden lattice entryways. He tried to escape and was detained. Villagers remember a tall bookworm who eventually earned their respect.
"He was always very sincere and worked hard alongside us. He was also a big reader of really thick books," said Shi Chunyang, then a friend of Xi and now a local official.
It is in the nature of China's politics that relatively little is known about Xi's policy leanings. He is not associated with any bold reforms. Aspiring officials get promoted by encouraging economic growth, tamping down social unrest and toeing the line set by Beijing, not by charismatic displays of initiative.
Xi's resume in provincial posts suggest he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they don't jeopardize the Communist Party's monopoly on power. He likes Hollywood flicks about World War II and has a daughter at Harvard under an assumed name, though he has signaled he may be a staunch Chinese nationalist.
Tall, heavyset and married to a popular folk singer in the military, Xi is at ease in groups, in contrast to China's typically stiff and aloof leaders, such as current President Hu Jintao.
A Xi administration is expected to pursue a more forceful foreign policy based on Beijing's belief that its chief rival Washington is in decline and that China's rise to global pre-eminence is within reach.
"Xi was chosen in part because he has the large, assertive, confident personality to lead in that kind of strategy," said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese politics at New York's Columbia University.
Xi will confront daunting challenges. After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is flagging and China is under strain. A polarizing gap has left a few wealthy and many struggling and resentful. Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust in officialdom.
Beyond home, China is locked in sharp elbowing over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. At the same time, Beijing feels hemmed in by the U.S., which is shoring up ties with countries on China's edge.
As son of one-time Vice Premier Xi Zhongxun, the younger Xi spent the 1950s in a world of comfortable homes, chauffeur-driven cars and the best schools when most Chinese were desperately poor.
But the elder Xi fell afoul of the increasingly paranoid communist chief, and Mao demoted him in 1962. The son was dispatched to rural Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao's campaign to toughen up educated urban youth during the chaotic Cultural Revolution. When caught returning to Beijing, he was sent to a labor camp for six months. Back in Liangjiahe, he helped build irrigation ditches.
"Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship," Xi said in a rare 2001 interview with a Chinese magazine. "Whenever I later encountered trouble, I'd just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult."
Local Communist Party officials and police in Liangjiahe followed reporters on a visit and asked them to leave, showing how the party wants to control information about Xi's past. But they did allow brief interviews, including with Shi, described by villagers as Xi's former "iron buddy."
Shi stood across from the now-abandoned, one-room home where Xi lived with a local family, and recalled the day Xi departed at age 22. "No one wanted to see him go," Shi said.
Rejected for Communist Party membership nine times due to his father's political problems, Xi finally gained entry in 1974 and then attended the elite Tsinghua University.
He would later return to Liangjiahe only once, in 1992, when he gave an alarm clock to each household, Shi said.
Xi went on to earn a chemistry degree, by which time Mao had died and his father been restored to office. Xi next secured a plum position as secretary to Defense Minister Geng Biao, one of his father's old comrades.
But Xi took the unusual step three years later of jumping to a lowly post in rural Hebei province, because he wanted to "struggle, work hard, and really take on something big," Xi told Elite Youth magazine's now-deceased editor Yang Xiaohuai.
Xi landed in the rural town of Zhengding, where people traveled by horse cart.
While there, he made the most of state broadcaster China Central Television's plans to film an adaptation of the classical Chinese novel "Dream of Red Mansions." Hoping to create a tourist attraction, Xi built a full-scale reproduction of the sprawling estate at the heart of the tale.
"You could tell Xi was thinking ahead. By doing this, he created lots of jobs and lots of revenue for Zhengding back when there was very little here," said Liang Qiang, a senior caretaker at the film set, which still draws tourists.
Xi biked around town dressed like an army cook and insisted he be introduced only as county party secretary without reference to his family links, former colleague Wang Youhui recalled.
"He always paid for his food. He didn't want any special treatment," state media quoted Wang as saying years later.
Xi's elite background plugged him into to a web of personal connections that were especially important early in his career, ensuring support from Beijing for local projects. As party leader, Xi should easily command the respect of officials and the military, in part because of deference to his father's status.
At the same time, Xi's years in the provinces protect him from accusations of pure nepotism and lend him credibility as someone who understands the struggles of working Chinese and private businessmen who are creating the bulk of new jobs.
With help from his father, Xi jumped in 1985 to a vice mayorship in the port of Xiamen, then at the forefront of economic reforms. Over the next 17 years, he built a reputation for attracting investment and eschewing the banqueting expected of Chinese officials. He hung a banner saying "Get it done" in a provincial office lobby.
He later took the top position in neighboring Zhejiang province, a hotbed of private industry, a lively civil society, non-communist candidates for local assemblies and a thriving underground church movement. Xi was seen as allowing minor local administrative reforms, while not initiating any of them.
"He's not going to do anything to weaken party control, but at the least you can say he's concerned with the lives of farmers and ordinary people," said Li Baiguang, a human rights lawyer in Zhejiang at the time.
Xi tried to dramatically reverse the government's poor reputation for accountability by clearing a backlog of citizen complaints in a one-day blitz in the city of Quzhou. He set up 15 temporary offices to address complaints over land seizures, job benefits and other issues, drawing 300 petitioners and resolving 70 cases.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson once called him a "guy who really knows how to get over the goal line."
After a brief spell in charge of Shanghai, Xi was brought to Beijing and handed the high-profile task of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He's also in charge of managing relations with the former British colony of Hong Kong.
Some evidence of a strong nationalist streak emerged last month when he lectured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on China's claim to East China Sea islands held by Japan.
"China's neighbors, including the U.S., should be prepared to see a Chinese government under Xi being more assertive than that under Hu," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Police Research Institute at Britain's University of Nottingham in Britain.
Xi's career has been lent a touch of glamor by his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, who for much of their marriage was far better known than he was. Although Xi isn't known to have visited his daughter at Harvard, Xi Mingze's American education adds to Xi's unusually rich exposure to the U.S., having made up to half-a-dozen trips to the country.
Xi, who likes the Hollywood film "Saving Private Ryan," showed a human side during his official visit to the U.S. earlier this year. He took in a Lakers game and stopped in Iowa to visit families who hosted him during a study tour there in 1985. Asked by LA school children about his hobbies, Xi listed reading, swimming, and watching sports, but said to laughter that finding more personal time was "mission impossible."
Former U.S. ambassador to Beijing Jon Huntsman said Xi is a man "who is quite different from Hu Jintao" in that Xi appears at ease.
"He's someone who you can connect with," Huntsman said.