A Mandate, Not a Putsch: The Secret of Xi’s Success

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 3

A younger Xi Jinping as governor of Zhejiang province, before he became president of China.

When U.S. President Barack Obama said that Chinese President Xi Jinping “has consolidated power faster and more comprehensively than probably anybody since Deng Xiaoping,” he was voicing a view held in both capitals. Since taking office, Xi has been able to push through ambitious economic reforms, rewire decision-making at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and take down a number of Party heavyweights using the largest anti-graft campaign in decades. How has he amassed the power to impose these changes on a conservative CCP?

The key to Xi’s success is likely not a sudden power play, but a decade-long effort to create elite consensus on the most difficult questions facing the Party. In short, Xi was given permission to be a transformative leader. A new review of speeches and writings made during his rise shows that he laid out a platform for his presidency long before being chosen for the job. His selection, therefore, represented a mandate for many of the radical changes he continues to push through. Some elements of this mandate were publicly stated as Xi took office: many key decisions made at the Third Plenum decision were foreshadowed by Hu Jintao’s outgoing Work Report in 2012, a document that requires the approval of much of the Party’s top echelons (for a comparison, see China Leadership Monitor, No. 42, 2014).

During his years as Party Secretary of Zhejiang Province, from 2002 to 2007, Xi treated the job as an extended audition. In speeches, essays, interviews, a regular column in the Zhejiang Daily and two books, Xi laid out a distinctive “Zhejiang model,” containing many of the ideas and slogans he has acted on in the past two years. Xi described his vision for Communist Party rule, and he made sure that the leadership was listening, appearing in national media to explain his theories. In laying out his vision, Xi entered the most heated debates of the Hu era, finding ways to accommodate both sides. He was pro-market, but not anti-state. He was committed to Mao’s socialist legacy, but saw it as a tool for governing rather than revolution.

Of course, Xi’s power has many sources. He also used factional ties, political maneuvering and his membership in China’s “Red Aristocracy” to reach the top. However, the considerable efforts he went through to publicize his thoughts in a system where cadres are closely tracked for performance and loyalty, suggests that he viewed persuasion as a critical tool, and that those who chose him knew and accepted Xi’s plans. This interpretation allows us to explain Xi’s effectiveness without assuming he is all-powerful.

Although the leadership selection process is highly secretive, and we do not have direct evidence about exactly who chose Xi or how, we know something about what Xi put into this “black box,” and we know the result—so it is possible to make some deductions about why he succeeded as a candidate.

Pitching his message in Zhejiang

After working his way up the ranks of the CCP in the provinces of Hebei and Fujian, Xi arrived on the national stage in 2002 as Zhejiang Party Secretary. He governed the province for five years, allowing him to develop a distinctive approach to governance. He waded into national debates with prolific writings and speeches, much of which was collected as two books: Work on Real Things, Walk at the Forefront [Gan Zai Shichu Zou Zai Qianli] and New Thoughts from the Yangtze [Zhijiang Xinyu], published in December 2006 and August 2007.

Xi had to pitch himself to a Party caught between conflicting economic traditions. “Red” conservatives, state-sector interests and social reformers all sought a larger state. Economic reformers worried, with increasing intensity, that state power was crowding out the market. Statists and liberals also clashed over political reform. While Western democracy was never on the table, the early Hu years saw intense discussion about “intra-Party democracy” and other ways to legitimize the Party’s monopoly on power by tackling corruption and giving people something other than Communism to believe in. Xi used his time in Zhejiang to provide his answers to these questions.

Using Two Hands to Fix the Economy

Xi seems to have been long interested in Zhejiang and its famous “Zhejiang model” of growth powered by family enterprises. In 1982, as a Hebei official, he led a delegation of provincial officials on a tour of Zhejiang and other coastal provinces. In 1998, as Deputy Party Secretary of Fujian, he led another delegation to Wenzhou, a bastion of Zhejiang private entrepreneurship (Economic Observer, December 30, 2002). When he arrived in Zhejiang, one newspaper described him as “a committed proponent of limited government” (Economic Observer, December 30, 2002).

Xi explained his view of a mixed economy with the idea of “two hands”: the “visible hand” of the state and the “invisible hand” of the market. He insisted that the two complemented each other. In a March 2006 Zhejiang Daily column, Xi described “two hands” as the “key to market-oriented reform” (Zhejiang Daily, March 17, 2006). Xi did not coin the “two hands” phrase, but he redefined it—and credited it to Adam Smith: “This concept of marketization is very clearly explained in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where he introduces the theory of two hands,” he told CCTV in 2006 (CCTV, March 16, 2006). Xi specified that the hand of the market should “adjust” the economy, promote efficiency and lead urban development, whereas the state should lead social management, public services, fairness and rural development. Xi’s answer to the debate about markets versus the state was that China could simultaneously strengthen both. This is a vision Xi has pursued as General Secretary, even continuing to use the same “two hands” formulation.

In Zhejiang, Xi demonstrated his commitment to the market. He described the private sector as the “life of the Zhejiang economy” and entrepreneurs as its “precious riches” (China Business Times, January 2, 2003; Xinhua, December 13, 2003). He argued for raising the political and social status of entrepreneurs (Zhongguangwang, March 3, 2004); offering private enterprises greater legal protection (Legal Daily, March 10, 2004); providing private capital with a greater role in funding infrastructure (Zhejiang Daily, August 11, 2003); and using foreign investment to upgrade industries and technologies (Zhejiang Daily, August 12, 2003). He also encouraged price reforms for key inputs (Zhejiang Daily, February 9, 2006) and drove drastic streamlining of government approvals processes, reducing a total of 3,000 to just 800 (Jinshiwang, April 1, 2006).

But Xi also saw a prominent role for the state: He called for a “mixed economy in which public enterprises are the main part” in his “eight-eight strategy” for Zhejiang (Work on Real Things, p. 3; Juece Zazhi, October 14, 2005). State-owned enterprises would be vital to “guiding economic and social development” and to maintaining Party rule  (CCTV.com, June 24, 2004). Private enterprises would require substantial state support to scale and upgrade, and Xi promised this to leading companies, including Zhejiang champion automaker Jili (People’s Daily Online, January 8, 2003; Zhongxinwang, December 2, 2003; Zhejiang Daily, March 18, 2005).

Finally, Xi made sure that Beijing heard him. Aside from numerous speeches and op-eds, Xi also publicized these ideas in a March 2006 conference on Zhejiang’s “Development Experience” and in national media (Dajiangwang, March 31, 2006; Zhongguangwang, March 3, 2004). In March 2006, Xi was provided airtime on CCTV to speak on a program entitled “Interpreting the Zhejiang Economy,” where he elaborated his “two hands” approach to markets (CCTV, March 16, 2006). His efforts were also frequently covered by national media, and one of his articles on “two hands” was even reprinted in the national press (Sina, March 17, 2006).

As General Secretary, Xi has written this mixed approach into the Party line. The Third Plenum pledged to make markets “decisive” while maintaining the state at the economy’s “core.” Xi, other leaders and the state media have also used “two hands” to applaud their economic policies (for example, Peoples Daily, November 10, 2013; Peoples Daily, March 4, 2014; Renmin Wang, July 28 2014; Peoples Daily, August 22, 2014; People’s Daily Overseas Edition, January 23, 2015). In May 2014, Xi presided over a collective study session dedicated to state-market relations. He told his colleagues that the “two hands” of the state and market should be used together in a “unified, mutually complementary and coordinated” manner (Xinhua, May 27, 2014). A Peoples Daily commentary last March referred to “two hands” as the “core proposition of the reform process” (Peoples Daily, March 10, 2014). Commentators have also spelled out the Zhejiang link. Ding Yuanzhu highlighted the importance of Xi’s writings on “two hands,” especially the March 17, 2006 Zhejiang Daily column, in an detailed exposition of Xi’s economics (Beijing Daily, March 11, 2014). Shu Guozeng, Director of the Policy Office of Zhejiang’s Party Committee, urged Peoples Daily readers to look to Zhejiang’s ability to make “two hands clap clearly together” (Peoples Daily, December 17, 2013).

Using Mao to Govern Markets

Turning to politics, Xi focused on a central problem with the Chinese system: Party leaders and cadres were not connecting with the masses (Qiu Shi, 2005, No. 17; Zhejiang Daily, June 29, 2005). Where Mao’s answer to this problem was to fight the Party bureaucracy, Xi vowed to dig it out of its rut using some of Mao’s tools. He labelled the mass line “a fine tradition of our Party” and self-criticism “a sharp weapon in internal Party thought struggles” (Zhejiang Daily, April 25, 2005; Zhejiang Daily, February 4, 2005). These tools could be used to “rectify” wayward officials and “caution others,” as well as to “educate” and “persuade” the masses (Zhejiang Daily, August 6, 2004; Qiu Shi, 2005, No. 17). Since taking office, Xi has deployed this same reasoning in a major “mass line” campaign and personally led televised self-criticism sessions.

The “mass line” would also be critical to saving the Party from corruption. In 2006, Xi told Zhejiang’s Party Discipline Committee that the “mass line” was a means to help the Party “use power correctly” and maintain stability (Work on Real Things, pp. 275–279, 440–453). At the same time, he argued for strengthening formal anti-corruption systems (Zhejiang Daily, July 16, 2004). Anticipating his current campaign against bad “work styles,” Xi also explained that “mass work” could shield the Party from “dogmas” (jiaotiao), “bookishness” (shu daizi) and the failure to unite theory with practice (Zhejiang Daily, March 25, 2007).

Unlike Mao, Xi’s goal was to strengthen Party authority, ushering in “an era of long-term [Party] rule” (Work on Real Things, pp. 440–453). The importance of Party authority also informed his approach to the law: “Establishing the rule of law absolutely does not mean weakening the Party’s leadership,” he wrote (Zhejiang Daily, May 22, 2006). This assurance has been clearly borne out by the Fourth Plenum’s call to regularize the judicial system while strengthening the Party’s ability to guide it (see China Brief, November 20, 2014).

Finally, Xi combined his borrowings from Mao with references to other Chinese traditions. Just as Xi has drawn on Mao, Deng and Confucius as General Secretary, in Zhejiang, he quoted Qing historians, Song philosophers, Adam Smith, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu, Chen Yun, Confucius, Han Feizi and Mengzi without a hint of contradiction. He justified this eclecticism with Marxist dialectics. “We are dialectical materialists,” he told a 2002 meeting of Zhejiang cadres: “without the past, there would be no present, so we can’t completely negate everything in the past” (Work on Real Things, p. 421).

Xis Zhejiang Model

Xi confidently positioned all this as a “model.” To do so, he took the “Zhejiang model” and honed it to fit his needs. In an October 2005 Party meeting, Xi insisted that Zhejiang’s success rested on its “people-centered” (minben) as opposed to private (minying) economy, choosing a phrase favored by Hu early in his term (Work on Real Things, p. 81). He said explicitly that the model had implications well beyond Zhejiang’s borders: “Zhejiang’s economic development model will not only contribute to a rich people and strong province, but can also make an important contribution to national and even global development models” (Zhejiang Daily, November 1, 2006).

While pushing this model, Xi stated and restated his loyalty to Beijing. In the preface to Work on Real Things, he credited Beijing’s policies as key to Zhejiang’s success; and the name of the book itself was taken from a Xi speech praising Hu Jintao’s speeches (Work on Real Things, pp. 7, 43). Xi justified his experimentation by arguing that “thoroughly understanding [the center’s] message does not mean copying it exactly,” but “uniting it with the real situation in Zhejiang” (Zhejiang Daily, November 22, 2004). In stark contrast to the “Chongqing model” that Bo Xilai would later use to challenge Beijing, Xi’s model was presented as a complement to, or even vindication of, Beijing’s policies.

A Big Tent Reformer

As Xi’s term in Zhejiang ended in 2007, China’s top leaders were preparing for the 17th National Congress of the CCP. At this Congress, they had to accomplish an unprecedented feat: Selecting a new leader without Deng Xiaoping’s oversight. Where Jiang and Hu had simply been selected by Deng, the post-Deng Party had to learn to choose its own leaders without a destructive power struggle.

Xi’s agenda was tailor-made to solve this problem. While he did not give all the details, he laid out a broad, “big tent” approach to the CCP’s most difficult economic and political dilemmas. Instead of siding with either market reformers or conservative statists, his “two hands” theory promised a strong market and a strong state. He promised to use ideas from Mao to strengthen rather than weaken China’s governing institutions, while developing the rule of law to strengthen Party rule. These proposals focused on achieving the shared ambitions of China’s leaders: sustaining economic growth, restoring the Party’s image and, most importantly, ensuring its survival.

What University of California San Diego professor Susan Shirk calls the “selectorate” had undoubtedly been listening to Xi’s pitch. He presented a confident, clear and consistent public platform in venues that included national television. In a political system that watches closely for dissent among its own ranks and in which small variations in political language can signify major changes in policy, his program was certainly known to the Party’s kingmakers.

In October 2007, less than a year after leaving Zhejiang for a brief stint as Shanghai Party Secretary, Xi was catapulted to the Politburo Standing Committee without having previously served on the Politburo, marking him as Hu’s heir apparent. China’s elites had managed to reach an agreement about their next leader. Given that they chose Xi knowing his agenda, it is clear that it was acceptable to them—and likely that it played a major role in winning him the job.


Zhejiang tells us a lot about Xi’s rise, the basis of his power and CCP policymaking. It shows that Xi went to great lengths to sell his inclusive vision for his administration and therefore that the 2012 leadership transition was shaped by elite compromises over the CCP’s future as well as factional power plays. Xi has been able to move quickly as president in part because his agenda addressed the concerns of most key players in the leadership. These players already understood the limits and direction of his plans.

There are some things Zhejiang does not tell us. We do not know how important Xi’s mandate remains today—having given him power, can Party elites easily take it back? If so, Xi’s actions will be constrained by the need to hold his coalition together. The status of the anti-corruption campaign is also unclear: While Xi took the problem seriously in Zhejiang (as Hu did nationally), he said nothing that indicated the scale of the campaign or its targets. To look forward, we should ask how much Xi will continue to rely on the support of the people who brought him to power, and whether he will be able to keep them on-side as ideas and plans make way for action.