The man expected to be China's next leader is generating a lot of curiosity. To learn more about him, NPR's Louisa Lim has been talking with his family and friends, starting in China's northwest.


LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: I'm in a small town called Fuping in Shaanxi Province, and I'm standing in a landscaped, manicured memorial park. And this really shows Xi Jinping's revolutionary lineage, his status as what they call here a princeling, because it's dedicated to his father, Xi Zhongxun. He was a Communist revolutionary, a deputy prime minister, and he's seen here as a hometown hero.

LI: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: He liberated the poor masses and allowed us to live a good life, says a man who gives his name as Mr. Li. In the memorial hall devoted to Xi Zhongxun, decades of his life are left uncovered. That's because he fell out of favor in 1962, accused of disloyalty to the party. He wasn't rehabilitated for 16 years, but his son, Xi Jinping, spent much of that time trying to join the very party that was persecuting his father.

CHENG LI: At that time, if you wanted to have a career, you do need to have that ticket. It's the only way.

LIM: Cheng Li from the Brookings Institution. He describes how Xi Jinping spent seven years in a remote Shaanxi village as a farmer and low-level official.

CHENG LI: He told the Chinese official media many times that was his formative experience. He learned a lot of things: humanity, humility, adaptability and endurance.

XI ZHONGFA: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Xi still has family in rural Shaanxi, including his 81-year-old uncle, Xi Zhongfa, who still lives next to the family home, a one-story earthen hut that's become something of a pilgrimage spot. Xi's been back at least twice. Life's still hard here. These relatives say they don't enjoy any perks

DING FENGQIN: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: In fact, his aunt Ding Fengqin describes how on one visit Xi Jinping warned them to behave, making sure to respect national rules and not cause trouble.


PENG LIYUAN: (Singing in Chinese)

LIM: This is Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan. She's a major-general in the army and a very popular star whose fame for many years outshone her husband's. Most of his career has been far from the center, in the rich, coastal cities of Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai. He's seen as being business-friendly and having a no-nonsense attitude, unusual among Chinese officials. Li Shih-wei, chairman of Ten Fu Tea Company, describes their meetings in the '90s.

LI SHIH-WEI: (Through translator) When he held meetings with us Taiwanese businessmen, he made sure the heads of the relevant government departments were present. If we raised a problem, he'd ensure it was resolved then and there.

LIM: Despite Xi's redder-than-red princeling background, friends say he's surprisingly open-minded. Jason Hsuan is the Taiwanese chairman of TPV, the biggest computer-monitor maker in the world. He's known Xi for 22 years. In 1994, Hsuan accompanied Xi on a stopover in Amsterdam. He says Xi was fascinated by Holland's liberal policies toward drugs and prostitution.

JASON HSUAN: I remember that he asked so many questions. I thought, wow, he doesn't look like a communist. He was amazed at why the Dutch government has kind of opened up this, but they have pretty good control of that. He may not think of this as a good idea right now to have that kind of thing in China, but he likes to learn.

LIM: Jason Hsuan mentioned Xi's sense of humor. He tells the story of how, in 1992, they tried to visit Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, but unwittingly strayed onto the military base. He describes how guards asked them to leave.

HSUAN: You are coming to a area that are prohibited for the visitors. But we have take a very quick glance of that. And then later he said, well, Jason, we successfully occupied Pearl Harbor without any sacrifice of any of the soldiers.


LIM: That humor has not been on public display.


VICE PRESIDENT XI JINPING: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: An acerbic side to Xi came out in Mexico three years ago. Then, he criticized what he called foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do than point fingers at China. China, he said, does not export revolution, famine or poverty. Nationalists at home loved it. Others feared it was not statesmanlike. Now the stakes are higher. Xi needs a successful U.S. trip to burnish his statesman credentials and build political capital at home. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, in the last part of her series, Louisa reports on the man likely to become China's next prime minister.

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