BEIJING — In 1985, Xi Jinping led a delegation to Muscatine, Iowa, to study advanced hog-raising techniques. He comes back next week, preparing to lead the world's most populous nation.
China's vice president, who will take over the presidency from Hu Jintao next year, will be in the U.S. to meet President Barack Obama and other leaders and introduce himself to a U.S. audience. His decision to also visit the families who hosted him years ago is a rare personal touch for a Chinese leader, one that feeds his reputation as a new type of official who dares to step away from the traditional aloofness of Chinese high office.
"He appreciated learning about America on that level, and he is signaling by going there that he is going to be a different kind of leader," said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an author and a longtime adviser to the Chinese government who has met with Xi for private talks. "He is going to be open. He is going to be appreciative."
Xi's ability to make personal connections and his unassuming confidence will be in much demand as he takes over the leadership of the ruling Communist Party this year, a step toward assuming the presidency.
The 58-year-old faces the tricky task of advancing China's development against the tides of global financial insecurity, resource scarcity, environmental crises and simmering social unrest, particularly in the western regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.
In his appearances, including a Feb. 14 White House meeting with Obama, Xi will offer reassurance that China and the U.S. remain committed to healthy relations, despite occasional turbulence.
"China wants a sign of respect to establish its up-and-coming leader on the world stage," said Joseph Cheng, head of the Contemporary China Research Center at the City University of Hong Kong.
Such visits by other Chinese leaders have been revealing. The risk-taking Deng Xiaoping left his mark in 1979 by attending a rodeo and donning a ten-gallon hat. Visiting just prior to taking power in 2002, Hu showed himself as bland, hyper-cautious and inscrutable.
Xi, who has a glamorous wife and a daughter at Harvard, was a consensus choice when tapped as successor in 2007. He has proven adept at suppressing his own views and avoiding antagonisms among the party's various branches and factions.
Henry Kissinger described him last year as "a more assertive type than we've seen," while Vice President Joe Biden told Xi he was impressed with his "openness and candor."
In Chinese political parlance, Xi is a "princeling," as the sons and daughters of communist China's founding fathers are termed.
His father, Xi Zhongxun, was a key figure in the revolution that swept the communists to power in 1949, but was later imprisoned for nearly 30 years. Released in 1978, he helped establish China's groundbreaking Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.
Xi Jinping spent seven years toiling in the rugged loess hills of northern China before earning a chemistry degree at Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University. He spent three years as a top general's aide — imparting him with an important link to the powerful military — before opting for a decidedly unglamorous administrative posting in heavily agricultural Zhengding county southwest of Beijing.
It was as Zhengding Communist Party secretary that Xi went to Iowa on a mission to study hog raising and experience a slice of Americana. Xi stayed with local families for two nights, visited farms and watched baseball.
Sarah Lande, a Muscatine native who hosted Xi, remembers him as outgoing, organized and self-possessed, dressed in a Western-style suit rather than the drab Mao jackets of previous visitors.
"It was all through interpretation so we couldn't talk one-to-one, but they were very interested in how to produce more food for their country," Lande said in a telephone interview. "It seemed special to us that he would want to know so much about us and how we worked."
Xi's next few postings were in the coastal province of Fujian, where he built up a reputation for breaking bureaucratic logjams.
He eventually became governor, then jumped to one of China's most economically dynamic provinces, Zhejiang. Following a brief spell leading the financial hub of Shanghai, he moved to Beijing as one of nine members of the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.
For observers of Chinese politics, Xi poses a riddle: Will he continue to follow or tighten the model of rigid one-party rule married to a market economy, or embark on a relatively more liberal path that could weaken communist authority?
During Xi's five years in Zhejiang, private businesses and business associations thrived, along with some civic society groups. In one provincial city, citizens were given a say in how the local government spends its budget, something that remains extremely rare elsewhere in the country.
While Xi was not necessarily behind such moves, he gets credit for not standing in their way, said Beijing political analyst Li Fan. "Xi is a person who is able to listen to other opinions and accept other views, although he isn't an initiator," he said.
Zhejiang-based pro-democracy activist Yin Weihong is more skeptical, saying Xi was quick to move against pro-democracy activists and did nothing to halt the demolition of a Protestant church that had refused to register with the government.
"I can't recall any instance when he came across as particularly tolerant," Yin said.
Xi has left largely positive impressions on foreign guests, including Biden, with whom he visited earthquake-stricken areas of Sichuan province last year. Biden aides said Xi came across as genuine and noted that he spoke at meetings without notes.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad invited Xi back to his state during a trade mission to China in September. He said Xi recalled the names of Iowans he had met and even produced the original itinerary from the visit.
It may be years before Xi's true attitudes are known. Hu, after relinquishing his posts as head of party and state, is expected to retain the key position of military chief through 2014 or beyond. Xi won't truly be his own man until his predecessor exits the stage.