For years, Zhang Chunxian's news conferences on the sidelines of the National People's Congress have been one of the most popular events among journalists covering the otherwise highly scripted legislative affair.
In contrast to his fellow provincial party bosses - or just about anyone in the party leadership, for that matter - Zhang is known to host free-wheeling press events in which he encourages reporters to ask any questions they like.
As many as 200 reporters have turned out at a time to test him with all sorts of queries.
"Are there any other sensitive questions?" Zhang asked with a sly smile just as journalists were getting up to leave one such press conference two years ago.
His reputation for open-mindedness and for being media savvy has helped make 59-year-old Zhang, who now serves as the party boss in the vast western Xinjiang autonomous region, a popular choice for promotion to the powerful 25-seat Politburo after the upcoming national party congress.
But for all his accessibility Zhang has demonstrated another skill likely to resonate with Beijing: wielding an iron fist when putting down violence among Xinjiang's restive Uygur ethnic communities.
Since taking the helm in April 2010, Zhang's government has shown little hesitation in using force at the first hint of separatist violence or terrorist plots.
In several cases, police have simply shot dead suspects without making arrests.
"We cannot be benevolent to the terrorists," Zhang said at his news conference this year. "They are brutal to innocent people, including the elderly and even boys and girls."
In this regard, Zhang's approach has not departed substantially from that of his predecessor, Wang Lequan. Wang's heavy-handed tactics spurred a massive riot in Urumqi on July 5, 2009, in which at least 197 were killed and hundreds were injured.
His failure to regain control after the riot ultimately led to his removal.
Zhang, however, has relied on his keen understanding of public relations to soften the government's image and, at least so far, avoid the sort of problems that plagued Wang.
During Wang's rocky 16-year tenure, journalists' phone calls to publicity officers where routinely ignored when violence broke out. In contrast, Zhang's publicity chief, Hou Hanmin, is seemingly available around the clock to answer all kinds of queries from both domestic and foreign media.
Zhang has also bolstered his image as a forward-looking leader by showing a greater interest in the mainland's influential social media scene than many of his peers, putting out daily updates on his official Tencent microblog account.
"He is someone who is eager and capable of doing something big," said Professor Wen Yuankai, a respected mainland economist who has kept a close eye on Xinjiang's development over the past decade.
In particular, many have noted the personal touch that Zhang shows when dealing with the public and the press, such as when a Now TV cameraman from Hong Kong fell off a table and sprained his ankle while covering Zhang's NPC press conference in March.
After the event, Zhang approached the cameraman, asked about his condition and ordered an aide to fetch a wheelchair and take the injured journalist for medical treatment. Later, Zhang had one of his propaganda officials give the cameraman a call to check on his condition.
It probably does not hurt Zhang's accessible image that he is also married to Li Xiuping, one of CCTV's most popular evening news anchors.
Dubbed the "face of the country", Li met Zhang, then transport minister and a rising political star, in Beijing in 2004, and married him the following year. It was the second marriage for both.
"Some say Li … has helped him a lot in this respect," said Chen Ziming, an independent political analyst based in Beijing. "But I do think that the open-minded and media-savvy image can be largely attributed to Zhang himself."
When assessing Zhang's capacity for higher office, analysts note that he has been a member of the Central Committee - one level below the Politburo - since 2002 and as Xinjiang party secretary he has what is widely regarded as one of the country's toughest and most important jobs.
In addition, few potential candidates, who include current Henan party boss Lu Zhangong and Hunan party boss Zhou Qiang, have résumés as substantial as Zhang's, who has served three terms in provincial-level leadership posts involving vastly different portfolios.
Born in Yuzhou, Henan, Zhang spent five years in the People's Liberation Army and holds a master's degree in management from Harbin Institute of Technology. He rose to prominence in the Ministry of Transport, being appointed deputy minister in 1998 and minister in 2002.
In 2005, he was made party boss of Hunan. There, he established a reputation for showing concern about the poor and gained notoriety for remarks that suggested he favoured faster political reform. In particular, Zhang raised eyebrows with one televised speech in August 2008 in which he appeared to advocate for more democracy while expounding on President Hu Jintao's plan to build on the two phases of "thought liberation" begun by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
While the first two rounds aimed at raising prosperity, Zhang said, there would be a third stage focusing on democratic development and fine tuning the market economy.
Chen said Zhang's speech seemed bolder than any given by Guangdong party secretary Wang Yang, who is widely seen as the leading voice for the party's liberal wing. "Zhang appears to be a reform-minded official," Chen said.
In Xinjiang, Zhang has been credited with reducing the province's seemingly endless demands for money and support from Beijing and for kick-starting its long-lagging economic development.
"The situation has totally changed since Zhang took the top job," said Professor Wen, who cited, among other changes, Zhang's efforts to encourage public share offerings by local companies.
But while Xinjiang's economy shows signs of improvement under Zhang, ethnic tensions continue to plague the region, where the predominately Muslim Uygur community makes up about 45 per cent of the population.
In July last year, a group of Uygurs armed with knifes, axes and home-made petrol bombs stormed a police station in the region's southern city of Hotan , killing four, including an armed policeman. Police killed 14 of the attackers during a half-hour stand-off.
In December, police in a remote mountainous area near Hotan shot dead seven Uygur men whom they said were en route to a jihadi training centre. This year, just days ahead of the anniversary of the July 5 riot, police arrested six Uygurs who they accused of plotting to hijack an Urumqi-bound airliner in the region's southwestern city of Kashgar .
Some Uygurs and human rights groups blame the incidents on suppressive religious policies enacted by the Han-dominated government, such as banning some traditional Islamic dress and preventing Uygurs under 18 from praying in mosques.
But Zhang's government says the continued threat of violence has prevented it from relaxing such religious restrictions.
Similarly, it says taking a hard line against episodes of violence remains the best way to ensure that fewer incidents happen in future.
Wen argues Zhang has been left little choice but to follow the path he has chosen because the central government has in recent years made social stability its overriding priority.