BEIJING (AP) — When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, it wasn't clear what kind of leader he would be.
His low-key persona during a steady rise through the ranks of the long-ruling Communist Party gave no hint that he would evolve into one of modern China's most dominant leaders, or that he would put the economically and militarily ascendant country on a collision course with the U.S.-led international order.
Xi is all but certain to be given a third five-year term as party leader at the end of a major party congress that opens Sunday — a break with an unofficial two-term limit that other recent leaders had followed. What's not clear is how long he will remain in power, and what that means for China and the world.
“I see Xi having his way at the 20th congress, mostly. It is a question of how much more powerful he will be coming out of it," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the London University School of Oriental and African Studies. "He is not coming out looking weaker.”
He has already amassed and centralized power over the past 10 years in ways that far surpass his immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, and even rival the Communist Party’s two other dominating leaders — Mao Zedong, who led the country until his death in 1976, and Deng Xiaoping, who launched China in 1978 on its rise from poverty to become the world’s second-largest economy.
One of Xi’s signature policies has been an anti-corruption campaign that has been popular with the public and conveniently enabled him to sideline potential rivals. A former justice minister and a former deputy public security minister received suspended death sentences last month.
The continuing anti-corruption campaign, Tsang said, shows that “anyone who stands in his way will be crushed.”
Xi, 69, had the right pedigree to climb to the top. He enjoyed a privileged early youth in Beijing as the son of Xi Zhongxun, a former vice premier and guerrilla commander in the civil war that brought Mao’s communists to power in 1949.
His family, though, fell afoul of the capriciousness of Mao's rule during the anarchy of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, which banished intellectuals to the countryside and subjected many to public humiliation and brutal beatings in the name of class struggle.
His father was jailed and Xi, at the age of 15, was sent to live in a poor rural village in Shaanxi province in 1969 as part of Mao’s campaign to have educated urban young people learn from peasants. He lived as villagers did in a hut carved into the area's cliffs.
The experience is said to have toughened Xi and given him an understanding of the struggles of the rural population. He stayed in the village for six years, until receiving a coveted scholarship to prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing.
“Knives are sharpened on the stone. People are refined through hardship,” Xi told a Chinese magazine in 2001. “Whenever I later encountered trouble, I’d just think of how hard it had been to get things done back then and nothing would then seem difficult.”
After university, Xi began his climb up the bureaucratic ranks with a three-year stint in the Defense Ministry. He then was made party chief of a county south of Beijing before spending 17 years in Fujian province, starting as vice mayor of the city of Xiamen in 1985 and rising through a series of posts to governor of the province in 2000.
A first marriage fell apart after three years, and in 1987 he married his current wife, Peng Liyuan, a well-known singer and an officer in the People’s Liberation Army’s song and dance troupe. They have one daughter, Xi Mingze, who studied at Harvard University and has no public role in Chinese politics.