Will China's next leader show his hand?

Xi Jinping seeks to boost relations with 'important high-level interaction' as he flies to Washington

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Xi Jinping, the man widely tipped to become China's next supreme leader, began a visit to the United States and Europe yesterday that will give clues to the future course of the world's most populous nation.

Currently Vice-President, Mr Xi is expected to begin the process of taking over the reins from President Hu Jintao at the 18th Communist Party Congress in October, with his appointment as general secretary of the party.

During his visit, Mr Xi will meet President Barack Obama, and will also head to the Corn Belt to visit Mucatine in Iowa, where he stayed 27 years ago as a junior cadre, and have tea with old friends there. He will then visit Ireland and Turkey.

Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said the visit was an "important high-level interaction" that he hoped would develop relations with the US. "Ultimately, the development of bilateral ties is determined by the relationship between the two peoples," he added.

Mr Xi is a powerful "princeling" – one of the group of young leaders born to the Community Party elite – and a canny political operator, and is seen as being more outgoing than Mr Hu.

While overall relations between the world's two biggest economies are good, the visit takes place at a time of growing tensions. The Americans are annoyed by Beijing's economic policies, believing China keeps its currency weak to boost its exports to the US. It also fears Chinese expansionism in the region. For its part, China feels that Washington is trying to grow its influence in Asia by boosting its military presence there.

We can only speculate about what kind of leadership Mr Xi's will be, and no one knows if he will be a reforming force or not. His leadership looks likely to try to soften China's image abroad, all the while staying firm on domestic political issues such as Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang, where there has been unrest among its Muslim population.

What we do know is that he is much more outspoken than Mr Hu and in 2009, during a visit to Mexico, he rounded on China's critics. "There are some foreigners out there with full bellies, with nothing better to do than to point their fingers at us. Firstly, China does not export revolution. Secondly, it does not export famine and poverty. Thirdly, it doesn't cause you any trouble. What more do you want?" he declared.

Most Chinese people are probably more familiar with his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, who can be seen singing patriotic songs in military uniform on TV galas. He has a daughter at Harvard and is known as a charming figure with a sharp mind. He also has a reputation as a graft-buster, having taken over as party boss in Shanghai in 2007 when his predecessor Chen Liangyu was felled by a corruption scandal.

Mr Xi's father was the veteran revolutionary Xi Zhongxun, who was Deputy Prime Minister from 1959 to 1962, making Xi Jinping one of the "princelings". His father was purged during the Cultural Revolution and Mr Xi hunkered down in the countryside until the ideological frenzy abated.

Mr Xi learned his stripes when he dealt with a smuggling scandal in the southern Fujian province and presided over strong economic expansion in the eastern province of Zhejiang. He was put in charge of ensuring the success of the Olympic Games in 2008 and the general view is that he succeeded.

Xi Jinping: The supreme princeling

Born in Beijing in 1953, China's Vice-President is the son of one of the Communist Party's founding fathers, revolutionary Xi Zhongxun.

Having held the offices of Vice-President and vice-chair of the Central Military Commission, Xi Jinping is tipped to succeed President Hu Jintao when he steps down in 2013. Having rapidly risen through the ranks of the Communist Party since joining in 1974, Mr Xi now has a reputation for zero-tolerance towards political corruption.

In China, Mr Xi's wife – singer Peng Liyuan – is more famous than he is. Their daughter, Xi Mingze, is a student at Harvard University. Mr Xi is thought to have a personal fondness for the US. He stayed in rural Iowa learning hog-raising techniques in 1985, and WikiLeaks cables in 2010 revealed him to be a fan of US war films.