THIS week China’s Communist Party announced the election of the 2,270 delegates who will gather later this year in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for the 18th National Party Congress. They will be tasked with determining a new roster of top leaders to replace the outgoing crop—and guiding the country for the next ten years.
As is so often the case with the grand set-piece conclaves that take place in that imposing structure on the edge of Tiananmen Square, the real decisions about what happens at the Congress will have been made beforehand.
In fact they are probably being made right now, by the senior Chinese leaders who are meeting discreetly at a Bohai Sea beach resort on the hilly coastline 285km to the east of the Great Hall of the People (as pictured above—the beach, but not the leaders).
Neither the government nor the party has provided official confirmation of any such leadership confab, but there have been hints. State media last week reported on the presence in Beidaihe of several senior officials, including Xi Jinping, currently the vice-president and very much the heir-apparent in the leadership reshuffle.
There are other clues, too. Security checkpoints—manned only half-heartedly during your correspondent’s visit—have been set up along the major roads leading into Beidaihe. The security nearer to the zone where most of the central government villas are located is far more stringent.
Large numbers of police, on foot and in cars, patrol the town’s streets. Asked why, an officer in a light-blue shirt answered politely but without detail. He said only that there were a lot of important visitors. Moments earlier, he had radioed a colleague about an incoming car convoy that belonged to the State Council, the Chinese government’s top executive body.
In the publicly accessible areas of town, amid the seafood restaurants, the shops selling inflatable beach toys, the throngs of Chinese beach lovers and a smattering of flabby Russian tourists, the presence of the top leaders is something of an open secret.
Local residents, seasonal workers and tourists all gesture vaguely towards the sealed-off western end of the beach when asked about the high-ranking visitors. Most seem to feel that whatever may be going on beyond the barricades has little to do with them. “We’re just here to enjoy the beach with our son,” said a Beijing holidaymaker, Liu Xiaomei. “They won’t interfere with us and we won’t interfere with them.”
But one man felt a bit of kinship with the nearby VIPs. “I’m just like the central government leaders!” said Wang Baoheng, a seasonal restaurant cook from nearby Liaoning province. “I come here in the summer to work hard, and I barely have time to enjoy the beach.”
Another man, selling live crabs on the beach (and wisely declining to give his name), said he had no interest in any of the top officials, and that “if Xi Jinping himself came over here I would not sell him my crabs at any price. He’s a turtle egg, so let him eat turtle!” (“Turtle egg” in Chinese is a common obscenity meaning “bastard”.)
This year’s meeting at Beidaihe revives a grand tradition that was started in the 1950s by Mao Zedong, perpetuated in the 1980s and 1990s by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but then downgraded nine years ago by Hu Jintao.
Mr Hu, the one who is expected to be replaced by Mr Xi in the process that starts with the 18th Congress, won praise from some commentators in 2003 when he ordered an end to the annual leadership sojourn at Beidaihe. A commentary at the time in one state-run newspaper called it “a populist measure for clean government that will stir people’s hearts”.
The revival of the tradition this year seems a product of China’s particularly fraught political climate, and testament to the utility of a discreet and informal venue for hashing out difficult issues. Party Congresses happen only every five years, and this year’s will be the first in ten years charged with selecting a new generation of leaders. The need to satisfy competing constituencies and patronage networks within China’s political elite is always a delicate and painstaking balancing act. This time, the task has been further complicated by turbulence stemming from the sensational murder case that led to the downfall this spring of Bo Xilai.
As they grapple and manoeuvre through their rivalries, today’s politicians are following well-worn tracks in the sands of Beidaihe. Originally developed by Westerners in the 19th century, the resort has been the scene of intrigue ever since Communist Party leaders took to summering there. In his memoir, “The Private Life of Chairman Mao”, Li Zhisui recounted several episodes from his unique vantage point as the personal physician to Communist China’s founding father.
They included some battles that were petty and mundane, such as the time when Mao upbraided the other leaders, who disapproved of his penchant for swimming thousands of metres from shore in the rough and shark-infested sea. He had already become angry with his bodyguards for trying to keep him out of the sea in 1955. The next summer Mao asked his colleagues, “Don’t you think it’s fun to do battle with the wind and the waves?”, according to the good doctor, who had the misfortune of being compelled to stay close to Mao on his swims.
At the regular dance evenings at Beidaihe, the chairman often piqued the jealousy of his wife, Jiang Qing, by pairing off with younger and prettier women, sometimes including the daughters of other top leaders.
Beidaihe has also been the scene of more Byzantine machinations. It was here, in 1971, that Mao’s most trusted deputy, Lin Biao, is thought to have plotted an assassination and coup. And it was from the nearby military airstrip that Mr Lin, after being found out, tried to escape in a plane. It ended up crashing in Mongolia.
Notwithstanding the fallout from the Bo Xilai scandal, this year’s proceedings are unlikely to reach the same dramatic heights. But nobody will know with certainty until the decisions made here are revealed to China, and to the world, later this year at the Great Hall of the People. In perhaps the clearest sign that preparatory work at Beidaihe is not yet done, Monday’s announcement of the delegate selection did not include an opening date for the Party Congress.
Source; The Economist