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Story highlights

President Xi Jinping is China's most powerful leader in 20 years, analysts say

Despite a bold foreign policy, experts question his ability to push through domestic reform

CNN  — 

After less than five years as China’s leader, Xi Jinping has become one of the most powerful people in the nation’s modern history, outshining his immediate predecessors.

“He is a powerful figure, he is the most powerful leader since (paramount leader) Deng Xiaoping, but again his power has limitations,” Cheng Li, director at the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center, told CNN. “China is not in the mood for a dictator-like figure.”

A relative enigma when he came into power, in this first term Xi has revealed himself as not only an economic and political conservative but also a skilled populist.

His wide-reaching anti-corruption campaign, which has been criticized as a way to consolidate power, has been widely popular among ordinary Chinese.

President Xi Jinping (center) attends the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) on March 15 in Beijing, China.

Now, after being declared the country’s “core leader” in late 2016, Xi may be preparing to break two decades of tradition and stay on after his second term as head of the ruling Communist Party ends in 2022, some analysts say.

Still, as China steps up to the global stage in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s election, experts are divided on whether Xi can steer his country through the difficult times ahead.

Xi Jinping: Fast facts

Son of a revolutionary

Xi was born in June 1953, just four years after the People’s Republic of China was established by Chairman Mao Zedong.

He is one of China’s “princelings,” the sons and daughters of former revolutionary leaders who have risen into high positions within the party.

His father was Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary fighter and former Chinese vice premier, who also pioneered China’s early experiments with capitalism, helping to establish Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone.

As with many Chinese leaders, little is known about Xi’s early years until his father and family fell out of favor during the chaotic upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

Xi (R) meets with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) in Beijing on March 19.

From 1969 to 1975, Xi worked as an agricultural laborer in Liangjiahe, Shaanxi province, one of 30 million urban youths who were sent to the countryside to teach them a lesson.

Xi’s time in Liangjiahe has become a powerful part of his personal narrative. Chinese tourists can even go to the city and see a small museum built to commemorate his time working among the people.

Eventually Xi’s father was rehabilitated after Mao’s death, and his son officially joined first the Communist Party in 1974, then became an official in the Chinese government.

TOPSHOT - China's President Xi Jinping (C) waits to meet with Hong Kong's chief executive Leung Chun-ying at a hotel in Hong Kong on June 29, 2017. 
Xi arrived in Hong Kong on June 29 to mark the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule and to inaugurate new chief executive Carrie Lam on July 1. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / DALE DE LA REY        (Photo credit should read DALE DE LA REY/AFP/Getty Images)
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Rise to power

Xi’s first official job in the Chinese government was