China's leadership reshuffle 2017
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President Xi Jinping pictured at Beidaihe during an earlier summer retreat. Photo: Handout

Chinese leaders head to the beach for secretive summer gathering

Meeting of political elite in Beidaihe will likely discuss candidates for the top jobs ahead of national congress

After the pomp and ceremony of China’s big military milestone this week, the sudden absence of President Xi Jinping and other key leaders from state television news bulletins on Wednesday was a familiar sign for China watchers – Beijing’s summer conclave has begun.

The secretive annual gathering at Beidaihe beach resort, 280km east of Beijing on the Bohai Sea, is particularly sensitive this year, with the Communist Party’s national congress around the corner and coming just weeks after a Politburo member was taken away for investigation.

It also follows an important consensus-building meeting last week among ministers, provincial chiefs and senior military officers in Beijing.

Current and retired leaders have apparently arrived in the resort town of Beidaihe. Photo: Kyodo

Who’s attending and what happens at Beidaihe?

For decades, senior incumbent and retired Communist Party members have gathered at the resort town every summer to discuss the direction of key policies and leadership changes.

Held at exclusive hotels or villas, it’s a closed gathering with no formal agenda – and it’s never announced to the public.

In fact, usually the only way to tell that the conclave is under way is the absence of senior leadership from the evening news bulletins. Although in recent years, state media reported on senior leaders greeting academics and experts invited to Beidaihe.

Heightened security around the popular beach resort and occasional sightings of black sedans are usually a giveaway for locals that the country’s most powerful figures are in town.

What’s different about this year’s gathering?

The timing – this year’s gathering is taking place just months before a key party plenum, when a number of top officials will be replaced and Xi is expected to consolidate his status and power. Party elders and current leaders will be discussing, horse-trading and finalising lists of candidates for the top jobs.

Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said that at Beidaihe, Xi’s selections for the 25-member Politburo would not be open to much debate. “No one in the party can challenge the authority of Xi,” Chen said. “They need to think about the consequences.

“The Beidaihe meeting is more like a ritual now – presenting a harmonious party by getting people from different factions together.”

How did this tradition start?

The Beidaihe gathering dates back to 1953, when the Communist Party decided to set up a “summer office” in the resort town for officials to escape the heat of Beijing.

Over the years, it’s been the setting for some historic decisions, including the launch of the Great Leap Forward by Mao Zedong.

Although the “summer office” was abolished during former president Hu Jintao’s term, the closed-door gatherings – officially described as “vacations” – were kept.

Late Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang enjoys the beach at Beidaihe with his grandson in 1986. Photo: Handout

What do Chinese leaders do in their downtime at Beidaihe?

Many state leaders enjoy swimming at the resort, but when they’re in the water they are surrounded by security guards – with speedboats on standby for when they want to take a rest.

That’s according to a 2012 report by state-run magazine Global People, which said a special “swimming platoon” had been set up to protect leaders when they were in the sea. Members of the platoon begin training in the spring, swimming 10km every day so that they’re ready for the task.

The governing bodies have their own villa complexes at Beidaihe, the report said. Officials with Communist Party departments stay in villas on the western side of an exclusive beach, while State Council cadres stay on the eastern side.

Late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (right) swims at Beidaihe in July 1987. Photo: Xinhua

Do retired leaders still have a say?

The summer gathering provides a once-a-year opportunity for retired state leaders to get together and exert their political influence – though the extent of that influence in recent years is a matter for debate.

Analysts say the significance of the gathering has diminished under the rule of Xi, who has dominated the party leadership. Xi has been elevated as the “core” of the Communist Party, a status his predecessor Hu did not have. At a military parade this week, the president broke a long-time tradition by inspecting the People’s Liberation Army without the company of previous presidents.

Wang Zhengxu, an expert in top-level Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham, said in the 1980s, the Beidaihe gathering provided a channel for retired leaders to wield some influence, but Xi appeared determined to exclude them from the decision-making.

However, Wang said Xi would still follow the convention of obtaining “understanding” from the retired leaders, especially when he wanted to change rules made by them.

“At Beidaihe, they discuss the issues in a relaxed way,” Wang said. “The gathering is still a way for the party to seek internal consensus.”