Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping waves to Thai students during a visit… (Pairoj, AFP/Getty Images )
Reporting from Liangjiahe, China, and Beijing — In 1969, a pale, gangly 15-year-old walked down a dirt road flanked by desiccated yellow cliffs from which generations of Chinese farmers had eked out a subsistence living.
The path led to Liangjiahe, a village in central China where the Communist Party was sending city youths to do hard labor during the Cultural Revolution. For nearly seven years, Xi Jinping lived there, making a cave his home. A thin quilt spread on bricks was his bed, a bucket was his toilet. Dinners were a porridge of millet and raw grain.
"He ate bitterness like the rest of us," said one of the Liangjiahe farmers, Shi Yujiong, who was 25 years old when the teenager arrived.
Xi was one of millions of Chinese youths driven into the countryside by Mao Tse-tung in those years. But his life has turned out to be anything but ordinary. From his years in Liangjiahe, Xi worked his way into the graces of the Communist Party, his rise fueled by a workaholic drive and apparent indifference to privilege. He left few mistakes or enemies in his trail.
That journey has brought him to the pinnacle of power. If all goes according to the script, Xi, since 2008 China's vice president, will replace Hu Jintao as general secretary of the Communist Party this year, and as president of the People's Republic the next, a post he could hold for a decade.
This week he arrives in the United States for what is being billed as his American coming out. The trip will be scrutinized for signs of how Xi and a new generation of Chinese leaders plan to govern, and how they might deal with a war-weary and economically wounded America, still struggling to adapt to Beijing's rise.
"This is an imprinting opportunity to set an impression of the man who will run China for a decade," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an American investment banker who is advising the Chinese government on the trip.
The 58-year-old president-in-waiting is often depicted as another in a line of colorless cadres, but his life story is rich with contrasts.
A passionate scholar of Marxist theory who preaches the need for young Chinese to study more Communist ideology, he nonetheless champions private enterprise. His daughter is a sophomore at Harvard. Personally unassuming, Xi is married to one of China's most glamorous figures, folk singer Peng Liyuan.
"Xi has an advantage," said Zhang Musheng, a former government official and prominent intellectual who has met the vice president several times. "He lived at the bottom for a long period. It makes him understand the current conditions in China very well."
Xi Jinping (the family name is pronounced Shee) was born June 1, 1953, the son of revolutionary war hero Xi Zhongxun. He was the third of four children born to the elder Xi's second wife. When he was a young child, his father was named vice premier, and the family moved into Zhongnanhai, the vermilion-walled Communist Party compound next to the Forbidden City, home of the late emperors.
At a time when China was abjectly poor, Xi's family had their own cook and nannies, a driver and a Russian-made car, a telephone, a special supply of food earmarked for the leadership. Fearful of spoiling the children, the elder Xi made his son wear his sisters' hand-me-down clothing and shoes, which the family dyed so they wouldn't be in girlish colors, according to a biography published last year.
But in 1962, Xi's father had a falling out with Mao and went to prison. The family was booted from their compound, forced to move around Beijing. Four years later, Xi's mother was sent to a work camp in the countryside, and Xi's school was closed down.
"You grow up in an environment where everything is provided, and suddenly you're stripped naked and left in the cold," said a friend from Xi's younger days.
The friend, who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing the leadership, described a world in which suddenly adrift teenagers would collect books left unguarded in libraries or discarded by people who feared persecution as intellectuals. "We had nothing to do to comfort ourselves but read," said the friend.
Xi has described Mao's orders that intellectual youths be sent to the countryside as a welcome relief. He was sent to Liangjiahe, hundreds of miles southwest of Beijing and in Shaanxi province, his father's base in revolutionary days.
Xi's service in the village is key to the narrative the Communist Party is spinning of a tireless, selfless volunteer, trying to counter Xi's image as a "princeling," the derogatory term for the many offspring of leaders in power now. But in a 1998 essay titled "Son of the Yellow Earth," Xi acknowledged early difficulties: "I was rather casual at first. The villagers had an impression of me as a guy who doesn't like to work hard."