Question: what do Communist Party officials do on their summer holidays? Why, hold another meeting, of course. Even at the beach China's rulers cannot resist the habitual urge to hold secret convocations, pass resolutions and draw up documents. For nearly 50 years, Beidaihe - a seaside resort 300 kilometres east of Beijing - has played host to the most important political meeting of the year. Decisions taken there are often made public only the following year and its picturesque scenery has been the backdrop for the darkest intrigues, details of which emerge years later. Here in 1958 Mao Zedong declared China's peasantry would be divided into Utopian communes and here in 1971 his army chief, Lin Biao, plotted to assassinate him. Later, Deng Xiaoping came to swim in the sea, while his chief ministers Zhao Ziyang and Premier Li Peng quarrelled over reforms before the latter ousted the former in the summer of 1989. So, for a couple of months each year, Beidaihe becomes Zhongnanhai-by-the- Sea. The whole entourage - wives, children, grandchildren, nannies, cooks, drivers and palace guard units decamp and settle down in a collection of villas hidden among the pine trees. With the rulers go all their ministers, secretaries, assistants, advisers and experts, together with their families and bodyguards. Here the rituals of a seaside holiday are observed, simultaneously with the rites and etiquette of bureaucratic life in Beijing. Squads of People's Armed Police march briskly past the sandy beaches where pasty-coloured cadres in swimming trunks amble in flip-flops and carry inflated inner tubes. Banquets of fresh crab, whelks, eels and scallops are consumed with gusto in open-air restaurants by holidaymakers grouped in their work units. An atmosphere of organised collective fun is suggestive of an extended summer camp for grown-ups. Even here, officials wear ID cards pinned to their trunks and a few of the more status-conscious cannot resist carrying their beepers and mobile phones. The government is present everywhere, even early in July before the top leaders have left Beijing. The state security apparatus has taken over the small fishing village like an occupying army. Officials arrive in the new air-conditioned express trains to a station cordoned off by armed soldiers. Roadside checkpoints demand the papers of all the vehicles' occupants. More guards are posted along the beach promenade, at the entrance to many buildings and at intervals along the walls of certain compounds. Secret policemen, conspicuous in long grey trousers and office shirts, trail behind foreign visitors or doze under umbrellas spaced along certain beaches as they guard the top leaders' privacy. 'Security is even worse when the top leaders are in town. There are soldiers everywhere,' a waitress at one beachfront restaurant explained. Not surprisingly, Beidaihe will never vie with Cannes and the Cote d'Azur. There are no glittering yachts in the harbour, no paparazzi spying out the rich and famous as they emerge from casinos or bathe topless. Instead, a statue of Stalin's favourite writer, Maxim Gorky, stands wrapped in thought and a thick winter coat, lending a chilly presence to the west beach. Everyone's place in the sun is determined by ranking in the party hierarchy. So the west beach is where President Jiang Zemin, the Politburo standing committee and top generals have their private beaches, ringed in the sea by nets and on land by bodyguards. Each unmarked beach is fronted by elaborate beach huts and across the public road vast mansions can be glimpsed set deep amid shady gardens and trees. 'Some of the houses are pre-liberation but a lot of leaders have been building their own recently,' said a woman selling cold drinks at the edge of the closed-off area. These are no holiday condominiums but many stately porticoed palaces with dozens of rooms, sweeping lawns and long drives, resembling antebellum Louisiana mansions. Along the road, stretch black limousines - cars with darkened windows and number-plates of the armed police - glide by, with flanking motorcycle patrols. The rest of the 10-kilometre-long beach is closed to normal traffic but even a policeman on point duty in white gloves bites his tongue rather than admit the area is reserved for the 'central leadership'. The curious know better than to take a stroll past these beaches or peer at the splendid homes of their leaders. At the centre of the area is a military hospital known only by its number, 281, and here elderly leaders convalesce and enjoy the cool sea breezes. An armed soldier at the gate says he cannot reveal its purpose but a large sign behind the entrance cheerfully gives the game away: Ni Hao, Shou Zhang (Hello, Top Leaders). 'It is a secret,' the soldier said nervously. The villas and gardens back up a mountain slope covered by a pine forest that forms Lianfeng Mountain Park, part of which is open to the public. The trees were planted by George Thomas Gandlin, a British missionary who built the first villa here in 1894 after British railway engineers had discovered its attractions while laying the track from Beijing to the port at Qinhuangdao. The Manchu government's response was to suspect the summer tourists of belonging to an advance guard implementing a devious plan to annex the beaches for the purpose of establishing a military port aimed at the deeper dismemberment of China. Gandlin was soon followed by others, although the original villas were burned down during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In the first decades of this century, more than 600 villas were built, as well as boarding houses and a couple of hotels, the Strand and the Oriental. With the missionaries came diplomatic staff from the embassies in Beijing and businessmen from nearby Tianjin. Families stayed for three months of the year, although work often kept husbands back in the cities. Leaders of successive warlord governments and Kuomintang ministries also built resort homes here. The 281 hospital was first used by the Kuomintang before it was taken over by the general staff of the headquarters of the Japanese occupation forces. After 1949 Marshal Zhu De took over one of the villas for himself and soon the other nine communist marshals, Lin Biao among them, followed suit. Since then a special meeting hall and a compound have been added to the Xinfeng area, where the party's inner core gathers for morning discussions, leaving time to while away the afternoons at the beach with their families. Generally, the first few days of the holiday are devoted to rest and the meeting begins in the first week of August, but there is no fixed timetable. 'Have the meetings already begun? Nobody knows that, it is a state secret when our leaders meet,' explained a local guide showing a troop of schoolchildren around Mr Lin's villa. The children are dressed in Victorian sailors' uniforms and attend an elite school in Shenyang. The villa, which the former army chief designed and built for himself, was opened to the public in the early 1980s. The party seldom allows the masses to inspect the private residence of a Chinese leader, so there are always plenty of visitors. It does not contain much evidence of his infamous crimes, apart from fuzzy photographs of burned corpses allegedly discovered in Mongolia after he and his family tried to flee one autumn day in 1971 in an aeroplane that crashed. But on display are his indoor swimming pool, a wicker chair on his sun terrace and a room where, somewhat decadently, he could watch films while lying in bed. The villa, built in 1966, now lies just outside the walls of the heavily guarded compound where today's military leaders holiday. Ministers and lower-ranking officials stay in villas fronting the east beach. Here can be found rest homes for staff from the Foreign Ministry, the People's Daily, research institutes of the Ministry of Aeronautics, the State Statistical Bureau and so on. At the far end is a large and gloomy mansion belonging to the State Council, where local residents say Premier Li lives when he visits Beidaihe. Low-ranking officials are allowed to come, in rotation, for a week each summer and generally stay in the remaining rundown colonial-era villas with their patched-up tin roofs and verandas hung with washing. Often the spacious rooms have been divided into cramped dormitories. Some of the newer guesthouses proclaim themselves the 'Rest and Recreation Homes for Old Cadres' from various provinces, while some buildings now going up are styled 'Cadre Training Centres'. Beidaihe itself has few hotels. Visits are by invitation and government units monopolise train tickets. The fenced-off public bathing beaches are jam-packed, especially at weekends, and closely regulated. A list of rules hung outside the middle beach warns those entering not to start fights, nor to urinate or defecate in the water. Stipulated fines for those caught doing the latter are between 10 and 20 yuan (about HK$9.34 and HK$18.68). Foreigners, of course, have their own beach, roped off and marked with signs stuck in the sand. The sea water is a little muddy and filled with floating bits of plastic, and few foreigners now come. Globetrotting backpackers stay away from Beidaihe and the Hotel for Diplomatic Personnel does not encourage them. Yet the place retains faint imprints of its former existence. One expects to find saucy seaside postcards in the shops or applauding spectators on the hotel's abandoned tennis court where wild grasses hide the old iron rollers and poke through rotting green benches. A peak named in memory of Gandlin was rechristened Cock Crest Mountain but on the town's clock tower the hands point permanently to 4.30 pm - time for tea and ice-cream at Kiesslings, the old Viennese-style cafe. Few go there now but you can still order a 'snowman' ice or procure a chocolate sundae complete with a little Union flag stuck on the ice-cream pile.