BEIJING Two years ago in Mexico, China's president-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, flashed a steely glimpse of a future leader born into a revolutionary aristocracy and who came of age in the tumult of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution.
Xi usually sports the dark suit, dark hair and cautious public mask that is the uniform of China's Communist Party leadership. But in Mexico, he dropped his guard for a moment to growl at international expectations and demands piling up at Beijing's door.
"In the midst of international financial turmoil, China was still able to solve the problem of feeding its 1.3 billion people, and that was already our greatest contribution to humankind," he said, in comments that soon drew applause from Chinese Internet users.
"Some foreigners with full bellies and nothing better to do engage in finger-pointing at us," he went on. "First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?"
Xi's mask was back in place when he met visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday, and there are no signs that he will sharply depart from the foreign policy of President Hu Jintao, who will retire from power starting late next year.
Xi, 58, grew up as a "princeling" in the Party elite and then watched his father purged from power before the Cultural Revolution, when Xi himself spent years in the hard-scrabble countryside before scrambling to university and then power.
That experience has left its imprint, said those who have observed Xi and other party "princelings" in action.
"I think they see the United States as still very much a strong power, and they can even appreciate the virtues of democracy. They're not necessarily bellicose," said Wu Si, editor-in-chief of the Chinese magazine "Yanhuang chunqiu," which is read by many retired officials.
"But they're also very pragmatic. They see each country as pursuing its own interests. They say, 'Don't look at the West through rose-colored glasses. It's about power'."
Xi has long been marked out as the likely successor to President Hu Jintao, who must retire from running the Party in late 2012 and from the presidency in early 2013. His appearances mark the start of that lengthy transition to power for Xi, though Hu could yet retain some power if he holds on to the chairmanship of the military commission as did his predecessor.
Married to a famous singer and briefly in charge of Shanghai, China's richest and most glamorous city, Xi won another boost to his succession prospects in October last year when the ruling Communist Party promoted him to vice chairman of that body, which oversees the country's military.
Xi has crafted a low-key, sometimes bluff political style. He has complained that officials' speeches and writings were clogged with Party jargon and demanded more plain speaking.
In mid-July, Xi, in his first major speech on Tibet, vowed to crack down on separatist forces he said were led by the Dalai Lama, suggesting that he will not ease Beijing's hardline stance toward the region and angering many Tibetan self-advocacy groups.
Xi went to work in the poor northwest Chinese countryside as a "sent-down youth" during the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, and became a rural commune official.
He later studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University in Beijing, an elite school where Hu also studied. Xi later gained a doctorate in Marxist theory from Tsinghua.
XI THE PRINCELING
He is the son of reformist former vice premier and parliament vice-chairman Xi Zhongxun, making him a "princeling" -- one of the privileged sons and daughters of China's incumbent, retired or late leaders.
A native of the poor, inland province of Shaanxi, home of the terracotta warriors, Xi Jinping was promoted to governor of the southeastern province of Fujian in August 1999 after a string of provincial officials were caught up in a graft dragnet.
In March 2007, the tall and portly Xi secured the top job in China's commercial capital Shanghai when his predecessor, Chen Liangyu, was caught up in a huge corruption case. Xi held that post until October 2007 when he was promoted to the Party's Standing Committee -- the ruling inner-circle.
Xi shot to national fame in the early 1980s as Party boss of a rural county in Hebei province, which surrounds Beijing. He had rare access to then national Party chief Hu Yaobang in the leadership compound, Zhongnanhai, west of the Forbidden City.
Xi is married to Peng Liyuan, a renowned singer who was once arguably more popular in China than her husband, until the Party began ordering her to keep a low profile as her husband moved up the ranks.
"He's the best," Peng gushed in an interview with a state-run magazine in 2007, describing him as frugal, hardworking and down-to-earth.
"When he comes home, I've never thought of it as though there's some leader in the house. In my eyes, he's just my husband. When I get home, he doesn't think of me as some famous star. In his eyes, I'm simply his wife," she added.
(Editing by Brian Rhoads and Jonathan Thatcher)