Xi Jinping is already far better understood than his predecessor, Hu Jintao. By the time he ascends to the presidency in mid-March, completing the trifecta of the three most important roles in China (he's also the chairman of the Communist Party and chair of the Central Military Commission), foreign observers will have long known where Xi was born and when his father died -- all things that remain unclear about Hu, the son of an unsuccessful tea merchant.
Xi's father, by contrast, possessed immense moral authority. If there is a bright side to Chinese Communist Party history in the last few decades, then former vice-premier Xi Zhongxun is central to it -- promoter of key economic reforms in the early 1980s, supposed opponent of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and maintainer of dignified silence about the subsequent internal squabbles among the party elite until his death in 2002.
Xi inherits this mantle and the moral and political authority it bestows. Xi and his colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body, are less a "team of rivals" and more a "band of relatives." With two possible exceptions, the seven standing committee members are related, directly or through marriage, to interlocked strands of party aristocracy.
It is within that context that Xi should be understood. He might resemble a party apparatchik who spent decades climbing through the Soviet-style bureaucracy, but he is to the manor born: an emperor with a common touch. Unlike the wooden Hu, who never departed from officialese, Xi speaks clear, standard Mandarin, moves with regal stateliness and has an orator's sense of delivery and timing. They call them princelings for a reason. He comes with a celebrity wife (although she has taken the back stage since his elevation as heir apparent in 2007), a family worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a June 2012 Bloomberg report, and a daughter at Harvard. (Hu's surviving family members are mostly officials in a township in Jiangsu, and his wife is almost completely unknown in China.)