Xi's elite background plugged him into a web of personal connections that were especially important early in his career, ensuring support from Beijing for local projects. At the same time, his years in the provinces protect him from accusations of pure nepotism and lend him credibility as someone who understands the struggles of working Chinese and private businessmen who are creating the bulk of new jobs.
With help from his father, Xi jumped in 1985 to a vice mayorship in the port of Xiamen, then at the forefront of economic reforms. Over the next 17 years, he built a reputation for attracting investment and eschewing the banqueting expected of Chinese officials. He hung a banner saying "Get it done" in a provincial office lobby.
He later took the top position in neighboring Zhejiang province, a hotbed of private industry, a lively civil society, non-communist candidates for local assemblies and a thriving underground church movement. Xi was seen as allowing minor local administrative reforms, while not initiating any of them.
"He's not going to do anything to weaken party control, but at the least you can say he's concerned with the lives of farmers and ordinary people," said Li Baiguang, a human rights lawyer in Zhejiang at the time.
Xi tried to dramatically reverse the government's poor reputation for accountability by clearing a backlog of citizen complaints in a one-day blitz in the city of Quzhou. He set up 15 temporary offices to address complaints over land seizures, job benefits and other issues, drawing 300 petitioners and resolving 70 cases.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson once called him a "guy who really knows how to get over the goal line."
After a brief spell in charge of Shanghai, Xi was brought to Beijing and handed the high-profile task of overseeing the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He has also managed relations with the former British colony of Hong Kong.
Xi's career has been lent a touch of glamour by his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan, who for much of their marriage was far better known than he was. His daughter Xi Mingze studies at Harvard University.
Xi showed a human side during an official visit to the U.S. earlier this year. He took in a Los Angeles Lakers game, visited the Iowa families who hosted him back in 1985 and chatted with California school children about his hobbies and family life.
The new leader will confront daunting challenges. After two decades of fast-paced growth and social change, the economy is slowing and China is under strain. A polarizing gap has left a few wealthy and many struggling and resentful. Rampant corruption is corroding already low reserves of public trust.
Beyond home, China is locked in sharp elbowing over territory with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. At the same time, Beijing feels hemmed in by the U.S., which is shoring up ties with countries on China's edge.
Xi's resume in provincial posts suggest he is open to private industry and some administrative reforms as long as they don't jeopardize the Communist Party's monopoly on power. Some evidence of a strong nationalist streak emerged recently when he lectured U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on China's territorial dispute with Japan.
"China's neighbors, including the U.S., should be prepared to see a Chinese government under Xi being more assertive than that under Hu," said Steve Tsang, director of the China Police Research Institute at Britain's University of Nottingham.