Reshuffled personal secretary Ling Jihua rose to power with Hu Jintao
Ling Jihua started out in the youth league with Hu Jintao, and rose to power as his personal secretary
Around midnight, an observer privileged enough to gain access to the secretive General Office of the Communist Party's Central Committee in Beijing would often find the lights on in the office recreation room.
Inside, one of the country's most powerful but least-known men would likely be engaged in something of a ritual: playing table tennis. After a long day, Ling Jihua liked to release some stress with a late-night match - and Ling had his share of stress.
As chief of the General Office and President Hu Jintao's personal secretary until last week, Ling oversaw many of the affairs of Beijing's highest leaders, from their paperwork to their doctor's appointments to, perhaps most importantly, their security. Ling was on Saturday reshuffled to lead the party's United Front Work Department.
At first, Ling's subordinates found his nightly ping-pong sessions endearing, something that humanised his demanding work ethic. That was, until they realised that he usually intended to return to his desk after match point.
"Ling never gets rest," one of his subordinates said. "He always works until midnight and plays table tennis for about half an hour. In the beginning, we thought: 'That's the end of a long day'. But then he comes back to the office and works for another few hours."
Despite his powerful position, relatively little was known about the intense, driven man who sat at the right hand of the president.
Although he often accompanied Hu on official trips, photographs of Ling were rarely published.
But those who watched him rise from a tiny village in rural Shanxi province to a key place in the influential Communist Youth League by his early 20s would not be surprised by his ascension to the inner reaches of power in Beijing.
Neighbours and family friends describe Ling, 55, as someone who, even as a boy, displayed an unusual passion for study and a determination to succeed. The fourth son of a revolutionary father, he always appeared eager to please and showed a flare for executing any task exactly as expected.
A retired official remembers Ling as an ever-smiling young cadre in his native Pinglu county.
"Ling was a pleasant, dapper little man," the ex-official said. "He knew how to please the leaders and could always fulfil their needs."
Indeed, one could say it was Ling's destiny to become the president's taskmaster, the man who made sure every event and trip went exactly as expected. His given name translates roughly to "planning".
Ling's father was a doctor named Linghu Ye, who joined the Communist Party while at its base of Yanan in the late 1930s. Filled with party zeal, he named each of his children after pillars of its philosophy. Ling's three brothers were named Luxian , "direction"; Zhengce , "policy" and Wancheng , "completion". His elder sister was Fangzhen , "guideline".
Linghu was also close friends with fellow Shanxi native Bo Yibo , the revolutionary father of recently ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai . The pair were so close that, according to family friends, the elder Bo once tried to convince Linghu to let him adopt one of his children. Linghu politely declined.
Linghu divorced his first wife, a midwife with whom he had fathered a daughter, and married the woman who would become Ling's mother. In the early 1960s, he moved the family back to his hometown of Gezhao village.
During the 1960s,Linghu gained a reputation in Gezhao for being a demanding father and an aloof neighbour. At some point, Linghu changed his family's name to the more common Ling, probably in an effort to appear more modest.
His father's lessons appeared to resonate with Ling. A high-school classmate described the younger Ling as an especially diligent student with a natural interest in political science.
"He worked so hard," the classmate said. "I remember once looking at Ling's textbook and being surprised at the amount of highlighted text, and how many footnotes there were."
After graduating from high school in 1973, Ling served in a local printing factory and soon had more responsibilities in county government. The retired official who worked with Ling recalls the young man being so driven that he refused to turn on the heat in winter.
"He told us the chill in the air kept him sober, so that he could absorb more knowledge," the ex- official said.
By 1975, Ling had been admitted into the Communist Youth League committee for Pinglu county. Within four years, at the age of 23, Ling had secured a position in the propaganda department of the youth league's central committee.
It was a fateful promotion, as the youth league would soon come under the leadership of an up-and-coming cadre named Hu Jintao. The league and its young officials would form a key base of support for the future president and general secretary.
The first clue that Ling was destined for the upper echelons of power came in December 1995, when Hu - then serving as head of the Central Secretariat - tapped him to serve as his personal assistant. Officially, Ling was appointed head of the General Office's research office, which prepared reports and speeches for members of the all-powerful Standing Committee.
Hu has kept Ling close ever since. The president, like many party officials of his generation, is an avid table-tennis player and Ling is reportedly one of his favourite partners.
In 1999, after Hu's ascension to vice-president, he took Ling with him to lead his office. Later that year, Ling was appointed to be the youngest deputy chief of the General Office, the powerful agency that he led until last week.
Back in Ling's hometown of Gezhao, some complain that Ling has forgotten about them since becoming powerful. One of the villagers interviewed said Ling only returned once after his appointment to lead the General Office.
However, the retired county official said the village's native son would always be welcome. To make his point, he pointed out a modern highway being built over what for generations was a dirt road. The highway will be finished by the end of this year.
"This is dedicated to Ling," the official explained. "If he wants to return home with honour after becoming a member of the Politburo, he is always welcome."