So, who is Xi? US visit will be a chance to find out
In May 2002, when then vice-president Hu Jintao visited Washington, five months before he assumed China's top leadership, he was largely unknown to the outside world. The visit spurred a series of articles and a popular headline: 'Who is Hu?'
Now, nearly 10 years on, just as Hu has become better known to the rest of the world, China's next leader in waiting, Vice-President Xi Jinping, 58, is preparing to visit the United States next month.
Already there are articles on the internet asking, 'Who is she (Xi)?' - a pun on how some foreigners pronounce his surname.
How that question is answered in the coming weeks will help to shape the international perception of Xi's leadership of the world's second-largest economy in the next 10 years. He is expected to become the head of the Communist Party at its 18th congress in autumn and the state president in March next year.
More by design, Hu appears to have started a ritual for China's future leaders to call upon the White House.
Xi's visit is likely to boost his international image, as it did for Hu, and highlight the importance Beijing attaches to its close yet complicated relationship with Washington.
It is interesting to note US President Barack Obama is to meet Xi on February 14, Valentine's Day. Most likely this is a carefully chosen date, intended to inject a sense of closeness at a time when the US republican presidential candidates are ramping up their rhetoric against Beijing - and with Obama becoming more assertive in singling out China for unfair trade practices in his latest State of the Union speech.
According to the White House statement, Xi and Obama will discuss 'a broad range of bilateral, regional and global issues'. That mostly covers the global economic uncertainties, China's currency and trade, the nuclear programmes of Iran and North Korea, and human rights. But it would be overly optimistic to expect any significant progress on any of those issues, not least because Xi cannot be seen to be kowtowing to US demands in the run-up to his accession - that would not go down well at home.
More importantly, if Xi has any new ideas on global or domestic issues he will probably keep them to himself until his grip on power is a little more firm. Instead, Xi is expected to follow China's long-standing policy by stressing steady relations and mutual respect.
But his visit is still significant in the sense that it will give US leaders a good opportunity to work on their personal relationship with him, which will be crucial in forging bilateral ties.
Interestingly, the intense and independent overseas media coverage of Xi's forthcoming visit will also give internet-savvy mainlanders a good opportunity to get to know their future leader, since any state media reports of his activities are heavily regulated by the propaganda masters.
So who is Xi? And will he make a better leader? The overseas media like to play up his background as one of the so-called princelings - referring to the children of senior government and party officials. Xi's father, Xi Zhongxun , was one of the founders of the People's Republic and was known for his reformist views.
Xi junior is said to be affable, but according to people who know him, this persona belies a strong-willed character reportedly hardened through his suffering during the decade-long Cultural Revolution.
He certainly faces daunting challenges. After 30 years of double-digit growth rates, the mainland economy is expected to slow to single-digit growth in the coming years. While many analysts agree that a slower rate of 7 to 8 per cent is healthier and more sustainable in the long term, that has raised concerns about an economic hard landing in the short term.
Meanwhile, China's social fabric is being stretched to the limit, with waves of unrest challenging the legitimacy of the party's rule. More ominously, the ruling party has never been so divided than it is today. On one side are the elites and officials representing various interest groups, trying to take advantage of capitalism's decline to delay reforms and strive for greater state control of the economy. And on the other, the liberals and reformists argue that the mainland economy is at risk without further market-oriented reforms.
Breaking the deadlock and uniting the party will require courage, wisdom and a steel will - all qualities that Xi appears to possess.