Xi Jinping, China's vice president and the heir apparent to President Hu Jintao, is making his official U.S. debut this week. Underscoring the importance of China-U.S. relations, Xi was given an extraordinary welcome, including a long Oval Office meeting with President Obama, an elaborate reception at the State Department, and a 19-gun salute at the Pentagon. Technically, Xi's visit simply reciprocates Vice President Joe Biden's trip to China last year, but for the U.S., the real goal seems to be getting a better read on the man about to lead the world's most populous country. Here, a guide to the "mystery man" in line for China's presidency:
When will Xi become China's leader?
Xi, who's 58, is expected to replace President Hu as head of the Communist Party this October, then assume the presidency when Hu retires in March 2013. If history is any guide, Xi will be president for about 10 years. This U.S. trip is part of his well-scripted ascension.
What do we know about him?
Xi Jinping (pronounced Shee Jeen-ping) is a man "full of contradictions," says Damian Grammaticas at BBC News. He was born into affluence, a Communist Party "princeling" whose father, a hero of the Communist Revolution, rose to the post of vice premier before running afoul of Chairman Mao in 1962. When his father was purged, 15-year-old Xi was sent to a poor, remote village, where he lived in a cave and labored in the field for seven years. He later worked his way up in the party, attaining senior positions in several wealthy, relatively business-friendly coastal provinces. Until very recently, Xi's wife, famed folk singer Peng Liyuan, was the most famous member of his family.
What does his biography tell us about him as a leader?
Not much. The poor are hopeful that Xi, sensitized by his years as a laborer, will tackle China's huge income disparity. But wealthy capitalists are also optimistic, because of his leadership in Shanghai and other coastal provinces. "Xi spoke up for private businesses, saying they are a crucial component of the economy," businessman Zhou Dewen tells the BBC. "Xi Jinping created an environment for private and state businesses to compete fairly." In other words, he's a consensus candidate "who can appeal to almost everyone, but who seems to have alienated almost no one in his rise through the ranks," says the BBC's Grammaticas.
What about his politics?
Xi has a reputation in China as a pragmatic centrist, but a U.S. diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks calls him "redder than red," suggesting he's not about to throw communism out the window. Xi has been careful on his trip to hew closely to Hu's policy formulations. We probably won't know his true plans until he takes control next year.
What does Xi's visit tell us about U.S.-China relations?
Xi is more personable than Hu, or any recent Chinese leader, and seemed very comfortable in his meeting with Obama and other top officials, embodying his country's newfound confidence. "The world hasn't seen a leader like him in China before," says ABC News in an analysis by its Beijing bureau. Previous leaders grew up during a time when China was heavily dependent on U.S. aid, but "Xi was just 24 in 1978, the dawn of China's transformation from a closed, communist economy to the international powerhouse that it is today. Many Chinese in his generation hold respect for the U.S., but no longer feel as indebted nor, perhaps, as grateful." Still, Xi feels comfortable enough about the U.S. that he's sending his daughter to Harvard.
What else will Xi do during his visit?
After meeting with Obama, congressional leaders, and other top officials in Washington, Xi flies to Muscatine, Iowa, on Wednesday to reunite with the family that hosted him during his first visit to the U.S. (He came here to study advanced hog-raising techniques in 1985.) He then travels to Los Angeles to meet business leaders and, reportedly, attend a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. After his U.S. visit, Xi travels to Ireland and Turkey.