Who's Xi? China's Heir Apparent Heads To US

The man tipped to be China's next leader arrives in Washington DC today on his much anticipated American debut.

Few outside of China have heard of Xi Jinping, but if all goes to plan in October he will take over as the General Secretary of the country's ruling Communist Party. He would then become China's president in early 2013.

The last two generations of Chinese leaders - both of which emerged after the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 - are often depicted as technocratic "grey men" - apparatchiks who made their way to the top by carefully toeing the party line.

"Who's Hu?" wondered the headlines in 2002, when Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin as General Secretary. 

It was China's first smooth transition of power since the communists came to power in 1949, but ten years later Hu's opinions, politics and even his personality are largely a mystery.

However, there are indications that Mr Xi - a 58-year-old chemical engineer who began his political career as Communist Party Secretary in an obscure village in central China - may be cut from a different cloth.

By the standards of the Chinese Communist Party he is both colourful and charismatic.

His wife is a singer and celebrity named Peng Liyuan, who has become a household name by singing rousing patriotic anthems while dressed in military garb. 

Until recently - and perhaps still now - her fame inside China far-outstripped that of her husband.

Despite his humble political beginnings, Xi is a member of the party's "princeling" faction, comprised of the children of influential former leaders. 

His father Xi Zhongxun was a revolutionary war hero who served as one of China's first vice premiers before falling from grace under Chairman Mao and spending more than fifteen years doing hard labour whilst under house arrest.

Xi also has an unusual number of foreign connections for a senior Chinese leader. 

His daughter is an undergraduate at Harvard University and one of his sisters lives in Canada. For previous generations of communist leaders both facts may have been seen as black marks.

Foreign business people and politicians have frequently been impressed by Mr Xi, describing him as energetic, effective and relaxed.

A US diplomatic cable published by Wikileaks recounts a dinner with the American Ambassador in which Mr Xi candidly discussed problems including government corruption, as well as relating his love of Hollywood films including Saving Private Ryan and The Departed.

Xi said he found many American films "grand and truthful," in comparison to some Chinese films which he called "confusing."

"Xi Jinping is clearly China's first modern leader," said Beijing-based journalist Melinda Liu. 

"Instead of wearing a business suit he'll slip on a windbreaker and schmooze with the masses. Instead of riding around in a chauffeured limousine he'll jump in a minibus with visiting dignitaries and ride around.

"He has the common touch, he's a man of the people."