STANDFIRST: Profile: Since coming to power in March, he has introduced huge reforms yet clamped down on freedom of speech. So who, exactly, will David Cameron meet on his trip to Beijing this week

In early November, China's most powerful man, Xi Jinping, stepped into a rustic farmhouse while on an inspection tour in far-flung Hunan province. The occupants' sole electrical appliance, a fluorescent light bulb, burned overhead. Shi Pazhuan, the family matriarch, was confused. "What should I call you?" she asked – in Chinese, a cordial way of asking who he was.

Xi shrugged off the unintended slight. He asked for the woman's age, heard that she was 64, and grasped her hand. "You are an elder sister to me," he said. State media immediately reported the encounter – it seemed perfectly to capture the 60-year-old Chinese president's down-to-earth leadership style, his warm personality and his affection for the rural poor.

Three weeks later, China suddenly and unilaterally declared administrative control over a swath of airspace in the contested East China Sea, sparking an international crisis. Japan, South Korea and the US defied the rising superpower by spontaneously sending aircraft into its newly formed "air defense identification zone"; China scrambled fighter jets in retaliation. Tensions are still simmering. Analysts say that Xi himself, also head of the country's military, was almost certainly behind the move.

When David Cameron arrives in China with the UK's largest trade delegation tomorrow, he'll meet a man who's defined by such contradictions – a hardline reformer, a cosmopolitan nationalist, a pious egalitarian with zero tolerance for dissent.

Since Xi was anointed as the Communist party's general secretary last November, he has pledged to liberalize markets while maintaining state control; he has trumpeted Chinese benevolence abroad while infuriating regional neighbors; he has promised fairness and transparency while cracking down on civil society groups. State-controlled media call Xi a man of the people; analysts call him calculating and ruthless, China's most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Before Xi took China's top job, he was perceived as a political chameleon, defined more often by others' projections than observable truths. Optimists called him a possible "closet reformer"; a US State Department cable released by WikiLeaks called him "redder than red".

One year on, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Despite Xi's calls for transparency and rule of law, he has launched draconian crackdowns on dissent and freedom of speech. He has tightened controls over the country's media and internet and ruthlessly suppressed the New Citizens' Movement, a group of activists campaigning for government transparency. He is overseeing massive surveillance and forced relocation programs in the ethnically divided regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, where tensions show no signs of dissipating.

Since last November, Xi has also embodied the Chinese leadership's effort to improve its image abroad. He has professed a fondness for NBA basketball and Hollywood films; he smiles in public, marking a stark contrast to his robotic predecessor, Hu Jintao. He is no stranger to life abroad; according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, he has an elder sister living in Canada. His daughter, Xi Mingze, enrolled at Harvard in 2010 under an alias. He first visited the US as a low-level official in 1985 and stayed with a family in Iowa. Western leaders have called him "open" and "affable".

Xi's wife, People's Liberation Army singer Peng Liyuan, has been described as a "Chinese Carla Bruni-Sarkozy"; for decades, she was more famous than he was. In March, photographs posted online showing her wearing attire by the Guangzhou-based label Exception triggered a run on the label's online store, causing its website to crash.

Xi's rise to power was detailed in a video called How to Make a Leader, which was posted to Chinese microblogs in mid-October. Its lack of irony, coupled with its mysterious provenance – it was made by an unknown production company called On the Road to Revival – led analysts to assume that officials produced it to court the country's well-connected youth. Xi "experienced 16 major job transfers", said the video, which showed an animated Xi bouncing on floating platforms, as if in an early video game. He began his career at a "primary-level office" before assuming control of a county, then a city, then a series of coastal provinces. This is true meritocracy, the video seemed to shout, "one of the secrets of the China miracle".

Yet analysts say that some of Xi's success comes from his vaunted lineage. Xi is a "princeling", a child of the Communist party elite, born on 15 June 1953 to a prominent guerrilla fighter during the party's famed long march. His father, Xi Zhongxun, was anointed vice-premier in 1959, granting the family a home in Zhongnanhai, a central leadership compound in Beijing. Yet Xi Zhongxun fell foul of Mao Zedong in 1962, and a few years later his family was consigned to manual labor in Liangjiahe village, a ramshackle town in northern Shaanxi province.

Xi spent seven years in Liangjiahe under the same conditions as his neighbors – he lived in a cave home, subsisted on rice gruel, hauled buckets of water from a nearby well. "There was nothing flashy about him," a friend from Xi's youth told the LA Times. "It was as though he always had a sense of mission about him."

Xi later earned a spot at prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, joined the Communist party in January 1974 and spent the following decades blasting through two- to three-year posts. He began his career as an aide to the powerful military leader Geng Biao, his father's former subordinate – "a job that deepened his affection for the army", reported Xinhua, China's official newswire. Later, he connected with rural farmers as a party secretary in Hebei, a flat, dusty province surrounding Beijing.

In 1985, he was transferred to Fujian, where he climbed the ranks for more than a decade before becoming its governor. Then came a transfer to Zhejiang province, a mecca for manufacturers and entrepreneurs; in 2007, he was handed the reins in Shanghai after a corruption scandal. Within a year, he was promoted to the country's highest decision-making body, the politburo standing committee.

Xi's father was known for his moderation and outspokenness. In 1978, after Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping appointed him as governor of southern China's Guangdong province, where he helped implement the nation's first special economic zone. The elder Xi often ran counter to party orthodoxy: he was a staunch supporter of former party secretary Hu Yaobang, a purged reformer whose death sparked the Tiananmen Square protests; he wore an expensive watch given to him in the 1950s by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader now reviled by Beijing.

Xi seems to have inherited his father's appetite for reform, if not his liberalism. In November, top leaders gathered in Beijing for the third plenum, a conclave that leaders have historically used as a launching point for dramatic reforms. The results lived up to expectations. According to a plenum report published in state media, by 2020, China will relax its one-child policy, abolish a controversial "re-education through labor" penal system and revise an outmoded residence registration system that denies basic social benefits to rural-urban migrants in their adopted homes. The government has pledged to give the market a "decisive" role in the country's economy, which it is hoped will make it easier for the poor to claw their way into the middle class.

Perhaps Xi's most high-profile campaign has been his frugality and anti-corruption drive, intended to target top party "tigers" and rank-and-file "flies". While the campaign has far from ended corruption in China, it has netted 11 ministerial and provincial-level leaders and changed the way that officials operate.

Yet critics say that Xi has used the campaign to undercut his rivals, while his message of frugality has simply driven corruption underground. One of Xi's greatest challenges has been dispatching Bo Xilai, a former rival who fell from grace last year following revelations that his wife had murdered a British businessman. In September, a court in Shandong province sentenced Bo to life in prison for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power. Critics say that Xi has been whittling away Bo's power base ever since.

According to Bo Zhiyue, an expert on Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore, Xi is adept at wearing many hats; while he has a flare for Maoist rhetoric, his predilection for combining strong political control with liberal economics makes him more like Deng Xiaoping. "Chinese political leaders usually give us a lot of surprises," he said. "I'm still trying to understand who Xi Jinping really is." © Guardian News and Media 2013