Xi Jinping, China's leader-in-waiting, fine-tuned his political antennae during 17 years spent as an official in the southeastern province of Fujian.
An official in Fuzhou, the provincial capital, who worked under Xi from the 1990s, said Xi always harboured grand ambitions.
"On the surface, Xi looked like a mediocre leader who would like to play it safe," he said. "But actually, he was an ambitious politician who wanted to make something big out of his life.
"When he was still young, he had already made up his mind to enter the Communist Party's central leadership. But I dare say even Xi himself didn't expect that he would become China's supremo one day."
Xi is the second son of late reformist vice-premier Xi Zhongxun, who was also a former Guangdong party secretary. His father was well known for being a strong supporter of Guangdong's economic reform and its special economic zone (SEZ) pilot schemes in Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Shantou .
Xi Jinping's first job in Fujian was to take care of Fujian's SEZ in Xiamen, just five kilometres from Taiwan's Quemoy Island. He tried to learn from his father to support Xiamen's development, but failed.
Xi was working as a county party secretary in Hebei when he was suddenly ordered to go to Xiamen in 1985 to replace deputy mayor An Li, the daughter-in-law of then party chief Hu Yaobang. An was forced to resign because her extravagant lifestyle and arrogance upset officials and residents.
"After An's resignation, provincial party chief Xiang Nan asked party general secretary Hu Yaobang to send another person to fill the vacancy," the Fuzhou official said, adding that Hu chose Xi because of his princeling background and rustic, low-profile personality.
In 2000, Xi told China Central Television's Half-Hour Economy, a documentary programme, that Fujian "was not the well-developed place I imagined before I headed there", and recalled a difficult, 236-kilometre trip from the provincial capital to Xiamen.
"In June 1985, I went to Xiamen, spending eight hours to get there [by car] from Fuzhou due to the poor transportation network."
A biography of Xi published by Taipei-based China Times Publishing early this year said that, after the long journey, Xi decided to build a highway linking Xiamen and Fuzhou.
"Many Xiamen comrades told me that their city was like 'a beautiful young girl wearing a shabby dress'," the book - Xi Jinping - the Chinese Communist Party's New Leader Who is Standing at a Historical Crossroads - quoted Xi as saying, adding that the new deputy mayor also planned to give Xiamen a makeover.
However, Xi left Xiamen three years later after losing out in the race to become the city's mayor. And most of his plans to reshape the city were rejected by the province's new leadership after Xiang was forced to resign in 1987 to take responsibility for a fake- medicine scandal in Jinjiang, a small county under the administration of Quanzhou .
Insiders believe Xiang's resignation as party chief was actually a form of political punishment after he lost out in a political struggle between local and non-local officials in the province.
After Xiamen, Xi became a district party head in Ningde , a relatively poor city in a remote corner of northeastern Fujian.
Another official in Fuzhou, who works in the province's cultural department, said that when Xi was in Ningde, local officials and residents asked him to use his connections as a princeling - the offspring of a party elder - to help them upgrade the small district into a prefectural-level city.
"But Xi turned down their request and instead launched an environmental protection campaign with the slogan, 'Returning green mountains and rivers to our people' that moved many big graves built along a key road connecting Ningde to the outside world."
The cultural official said Xi was prepared to "offend rich and powerful people who harmed the public interest", with most of the tombs built by rich local families with special backgrounds or official connections.
"Xi's assertiveness made many powerful families and local officials very unhappy," he said.
The official added that environmental protection had been one of Xi priorities ever since, with a desert control project in Longyan's Changding county when he was acting Fujian governor in 1999 being one notable achievement.
"But none of us realised the importance of such a progressive and innovative environmental protection concept more than a decade ago, with most local officials just trying to create some 'image projects' to pave the way for further promotion," the official said.
In 2000, an environmentally friendly Ningde was formally upgraded to a prefectural-level city when Xi became Fujian's governor. Another of Xi's achievements was his success in attracting overseas capital to Fuzhou when he was the city's party head from 1998 to 2000.
One of the projects saw Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing brought in to take part in the renovation of the Three Lanes and Seven Alleys, an historic residential area dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Several people who worked under Xi in Fujian said it was hard to notice any flaws with him, even as the controversial Yuanhua smuggling case ensnared at least 700 central government and local officials.
Xi's time in Fujian coincided with the rise and fall of Lai Changxing , who became the mainland's most-wanted fugitive in 2000.
Lai, 54, established the Yuanhua Group in Xiamen in the 1990s. At his trial in April this year, Xinhua reported that his smuggling operations evaded 14 billion yuan in customs duties from 1996 to 1999 and that he paid at least 64 government officials nearly 40 million yuan in bribes.
Lai was jailed for life by the Xiamen Intermediate People's Court in May.
A source close to the Fujian provincial government said Xi was not touched by the scandal.
"No evidence shows Xi, Fujian's No2 leader after Jia Qinglin , had a connection with A-Xing [Lai]," he said. "During the mid-1990s, the golden time of A-Xing's Yuanhua Group, almost all the provincial government officials, including our party head Jia, were so proud of making friends with A-Xing, and all of us were keen on showing off our relationship because it signified that you were in the club.
"But Xi was a rare senior official who tried to keep his distance from A-Xing."
He said Xi's work in the early 1980s as one of the secretaries of then defence minister Geng Biao had been invaluable in cultivating his "political sense and awareness" and paving the way for entry to the party's upper echelons.
"As a defence minister's secretary, he had opportunities to sit in on many meetings of the Communist Party's Politburo and read many of the party's confidential documents," the provincial official said.
"Those privileges made him understand that his key mission in Fujian was neither colluding with influential people nor racing to compete with neighbouring Guangdong and other coastal provinces in terms of economic development, but another, political, task - to do the united front work on Taiwan."
Shi Bing , the head of Hong Kong-based Ta Kung Pao's Fuzhou bureau, said that when Xi was Fujian governor, local media had asked him why there was a huge development gap between Fujian and Guangdong, which was governed by his father in the late 1970s.
"In an interview, we asked why Fujian lagged so far behind Guangdong, given that the central government had put both Fujian and Guangdong on the same starting line [by setting up four SEZs in the two provinces] in 1980," Shi said.
"I remember Xi's answer: when the starting pistol for our country's reform and opening-up race fired, Guangdong ran out immediately, while Fujian was still tying its shoes … and it is my job to lay a good foundation for Fujian."
That foundation included taking steps to maintain Fujian's status as the mainland province with the most forest cover (more than 60 per cent), attracting capital and improving local infrastructure, Shi said.
Sze Chi-ching, a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur originally from Fujian who has been Xi's friend since 1985, said it was unfair to blame Xi for Fujian's lacklustre economy.
"The central government didn't want to develop Fujian because it had been designated as a war front [since 1949] due to tension between Beijing and Taipei," he said.
"Meanwhile, when Guangdong pulled out all the stops for economic development [in the 1980s and 1990s], Fujian was still busy with political struggles, with many able-minded cadres from Beijing and other provinces being excluded by local people and leftists. It was a great pity," he said.
Many middle-aged officials in Fuzhou said Xi had been one of the "outside officials" and he had been given a hard time during his 17 years in the province.
"But as a leader with a princeling background, Xi's simple life and selflessness made an impression on the local officials and people," a provincial foreign affairs official said.
"When Xi was in Xiamen and Ningde, he still put on green military uniforms, the clothes he wore in Zhengding , Hebei ," he said. "He started wearing Western-style suits when he became party head of Fuzhou because he needed to dress up when meeting overseas entrepreneurs at investment promotion functions."
Sze said Xi had a humble personality and always remembered friends.
"He lived in a public dormitory and washed his own clothes when he was deputy mayor of Xiamen," Sze, 73, said.
"He also dined at a public canteen and never visited fancy restaurants.
"He has never forgotten old friends like me … when he was moved to Zhejiang and Shanghai, he still managed to find time to meet me … it made me feel that he is still my little brother."
The Fuzhou foreign affairs official said Xi had taken steps to maintain a clean image, "just like Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou".
"For example, he didn't allow his brothers and sisters to run businesses in Fujian when he was there," the official said. "He told us that he once warned them: 'I will not provide any help if you guys have problems in Fujian'."
The official said Xi's mother, Qi Xin , played a key role in removing "family obstacles" and persuading his brother and sisters, who are now all entrepreneurs, to support Xi's political career.
"That's why his younger brother, Xi Yuanping, agreed to withdraw all his businesses in Shanghai after Xi was appointed the municipality's party chief in 2007," he said.