From mathematics teacher to Jiangsu province party boss, Li Yuanchao says working out solutions remains his daily challenge.
Graduating from Shanghai Normal University in 1972, Mr Li, then 22, taught at an evening school to help the many who had been denied the chance to study during the Cultural Revolution.
When Deng Xiaoping decided to open China's doors in 1978, Mr Li decided to further his own education, enrolling in the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai the same year to study advanced maths.
Being a mature student, Mr Li was keen to serve on the Communist Youth League at the campus. His organisational abilities landed him the job of league secretary in Shanghai upon his graduation in April 1983. By the end of that year, he was promoted to the league's headquarters in Beijing as a secretary working with Hu Jintao, who was then also a secretary.
Today Mr Hu, 61, is the country's president while Mr Li, at 52, is running Jiangsu, the industrial powerhouse province neighbouring Shanghai.
Mr Li exuded sincerity and apologised profusely when an emergency meeting delayed this interview with the South China Morning Post on the sidelines of the recently concluded annual session of the National People's Congress, of which he is a deputy.
His attitude stands in contrast to many mainland officials who, mindful of their status, think nothing of keeping journalists waiting for hours.
He said he believed in two golden rules: hard work and open-mindedness. Mr Li insists he has no extraordinary abilities - just a willingness to speak to people from all walks of life and make the best use of available resources.
His promotion of Jiangsu province follows this approach. Making use of its proximity to Shanghai, Mr Li said the province was now trying to attract as much capital as possible to the Yangtze River Delta. An abundance of skilled labour made the province an attractive proposition for manufacturers, said Mr Li.
With China now riding the wave of economic globalisation and establishing the world's largest manufacturing centre, Mr Li believes that Jiangsu, with the highest rate of tertiary graduates in the nation, is set to make the most of a golden opportunity.
The province had a gross domestic product of 1.06 trillion yuan (HK$996 billion) last year, putting Jiangsu's economic contribution to the nation as second only to Guangdong.
Surpassing Guangdong was now the province's major objective, said Mr Li, who is also shouldering responsibility for urbanising rural Jiangsu. 'By the end of 2007, we hope to have 55 per cent of Jiangsu's 74 million population living in urban areas,' he said.
To achieve this goal, Mr Li is steering a programme that involves the investment of 430 billion yuan in infrastructure alone this year, and the reform of 1,706 state-run enterprises.
In addition to economic prosperity, Mr Li promises more transparency in government.
He is initiating a civil service assessment programme in which the public is invited to evaluate and rank the performance of all provincial government departments. He hopes the move will improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy.
If Mr Li can achieve his goals, a bright political future awaits him. However, his rise to prominence has not been without challenges. An outbreak of food poisoning in the Jiangsu provincial capital of Nanjing last September, in which 41 people died, cast doubt on Mr Li's future.
He was party secretary in the city at the time and many thought he would be made the scapegoat for the poisoning incident, perpetrated by a school canteen proprietor jealous of a rival.
Mr Li was able to stave off criticism because he had already implemented a food safety permit system - one of the first in the country - a month before the incident. Still, the incident surfaced at the time of the Jiangsu party congress last year. However, Mr Li has influential friends, including Hui Liangyu, the former Jiangsu party secretary who became one of four new vice-premiers.
Mr Hui, who has been described as a mentor to Mr Li, reportedly threatened to resign if Mr Li's opponents had succeeded in blocking his appointment as provincial chief by raising the food-poisoning case.
Official media said Mr Li almost burst into tears when his appointment was confirmed.
Experience in government at a range of levels has equipped the former vice-cultural minister Li with the ability to bridge the gap between the central leadership and the grassroots.
He said his understanding of the rationale behind the leadership's policies enabled him to explain the measures to ordinary people. 'My training at local government level is enabling me to implement the leadership's policies to the satisfaction of the grassroots,' he said.