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A 59-year-old Chinese politician is about to become one of the world's most powerful men. Next week, when China ends its party congress, Xi Jinping will become the nation's Communist Party leader. He's a princeling, the son of a revolutionary hero. But as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, his life has not all been easy.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Far from the political theater of the Communist Congress, is a cave that the country's next leader used to call home.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

LIM: The cultural revolution was gripping China. Xi Jinping was just 15 years old. Born and raised in Beijing, he suddenly found himself in the remote countryside of Shaanxi Province after his father, a former vice premier, fell out of political favor.

UNIDENTIFIED VILLAGER: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Today, the villagers there are suspicious and tight-lipped. They've been ordered not to talk to journalists. Most villagers still live in damp caves carved from the hillside, as Xi did for seven years.

XUE YUBIN: (Through translator) He was a good young man. The villagers were impressed the son of such a high-ranking official would chat to ordinary people.

LIM: That's 84-year-old Xue Yubin. He may have missed the warnings not to talk, since he's extremely deaf. He joined the communist army in 1947, and knew both Xis - father and son.

XUE: (Through translator) He often asked me whether I'd met his father. I said yes, I met him when I was a military messenger. As a young man, his character was quite strong. His lifestyle was like his father; both liked to be close to the masses.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARKING DOGS)

LIM: In the village, Xi began working as a party official. Historian Tan Huwa, from Yanan University, describes how tough life was.

TAN HUWA: (Through translator) One night, they cooked an exceptionally good dinner. They didn't know why. The next day, they found that when they'd drawn the water from the well, they'd also pulled up a snake and a frog, in their bucket, and cooked them in their meal.

LIM: When Xi revisited Liangjiahe in 1992, he brought gifts. Some villagers got money. Others, like Liu Yanzhi, got a flashlight and alarm clock, so their kids could get to school on time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOLCHILDREN)

LIM: Perhaps respect for punctuality is a family trait. A school in memory of Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun, is emblazoned with the words, "Arrive At School On Time." It's in his ancestral village of Dancun, almost 170 miles from Yanan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION VEHICLES)

LIM: I was here about half a year ago and then, it was just a very small, average, sleepy, countryside village. Now, there's a huge road-building project going on. They're building this six-lane highway to the village. At one end is a gigantic shopping center; at the other, a capacious new school.

WANG WUYING: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: It's an issue of national image, according construction supervisor Wang Wuying. He thinks it would look bad if a leader's hometown was poor. But Xi Jinping grew up in a house governed by his father's peasant habits. That's according to his father's official biographer, Jia Juchuan.

JIA JUCHUAN: (Through translator) The thing Xi Jinping couldn't bear was that after his father took a bath, he wouldn't throw away the water but made his two sons share it. Sometimes Xi wore his sister's floral shoes, dyed black.

LIM: Jia Juchuan spent 16 years compiling the official biography of Xi Zhongxun. Only the first volume has been released. The second's been kept back, due to political sensitivity. Some accounts indicate the older Xi may have criticized the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, though Jia says there's no evidence of this. But Jia says the older Xi would not have approved of the beautification of his hometown.

JIA: (Through translator) In many places, they're using old revolutionaries as a reason to spend public money. These things violate the wishes of the revolutionaries.

LIM: The locals, however, are pleased.

MRS. SHEN: (Speaking foreign language)

LIM: Of course we're happy, says Mrs. Shen. Our hometown has produced an emperor.

So far, Xi Jinping remains a political enigma. But his background could allow hope for an emperor with a common touch. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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