Trade war fallout to lead agenda as Xi Jinping gathers elite for strategy session at Beidaihe, the Communist Party’s Camp David-style retreat

The annual gathering of the party’s retired and serving elite could see some shifts in domestic direction but don’t expect a challenge to Xi’s agenda, observers say

PUBLISHED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 6:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 July, 2018, 11:30pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping might try to forge consensus and handle political fallout from the US trade war when the Communist Party elite gather at the seaside resort of Beidaihe for their annual Camp David-style summer retreat, party watchers said.

There has been no public announcement of a date for the start of the gathering of retired and serving political leaders but the event is understood to be taking place around the first week of August, after Xi returns from a trip to the Middle East and Africa.

After the retreat, Xi is expected to meet Malaysia’s newly elected Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in Beijing on August 13 at the earliest, the South China Morning Post has reported.

Beidaihe has traditionally been a rare chance for dozens of the most politically influential figures in China to socialise and discuss policy and politics.

This year’s meetings have been overshadowed by China’s escalating trade frictions with the world’s largest economy, tensions that observers say could affect the country’s politics and grand strategy.

Deng Yuwen, former deputy editor of Study Times, a newspaper affiliated with the Central Party School, the party’s top academy, said he did not think the trade war in itself would be a focus given that China had already made its position clear.

“Yet issues raised by the trade war could be key, including the changes [the trade war] will have on domestic politics, society, foreign policy and ways the country will be governed,” Deng said.

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The trade war – dubbed by Beijing as “the biggest in economic history” – started officially two weeks ago when the United States and China imposed 25 per cent tariffs on US$34 billion of each other’s products.

Deng said the row would put pressure on China’s leaders to rethink their main strategies, Sino-US relations and their approach to US President Donald Trump.

“The Beidaihe meetings could be followed by more adjustments [in strategy],” he said. “As the situation develops, it could prompt more diverse views within the party.”

But the influence of the party’s elders and the Beidaihe gathering as a whole has dwindled, especially under Xi, described by some as “China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong”.

That was apparent last year when there was no informal gathering of serving and retired leaders at Beidaihe to discuss the state of the country or that autumn’s leadership reshuffle at a five-yearly party congress. And in a sharp departure from two decades of party tradition, the congress ended without the appointment of an obvious successor to Xi.

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The following March, Xi also saw the national legislature change the constitution to do away with presidential term limits, enabling him to stay in power beyond 2023.

Beidaihe is a chance for Xi to review and adjust his policies but there is little sign of a major challenge to his dominance of the party.

While the retreat is presented as an informal affair, any private meeting with an incumbent leader has to be approved in line with strict protocol, according to a retired official.

Xi would also be in firm control of any meeting agendas, the source said.

“The [officials’] flats are very close to each other. They can greet each other during a walk,” the source said. “But everyone is heavily guarded, and to request a meeting with incumbent leaders is always difficult.”

The source said the regular monthly Politburo meetings and weekly meetings of Politburo Standing Committee would be held in Beidaihe during the retreat but any extra informal meetings would require the approval of the general office of the party’s Central Committee.

Chen Daoyin, a Shanghai-based political scientist, said a gathering of retired and serving leaders was unlikely.

“I think the elders could raise their opinions in written form, but to do so in a collective and semi-open way is quite unlikely, given the authority’s high-handed approach in recent years towards dissenting views,” Chen said.

Nevertheless, Beijing has showed some willingness to alter policy. In the two weeks since the US and Chinese tariffs came into effect, the leadership has sought to take some of the heat out the nationalism that has risen in the past six years under Xi’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

US ‘so scared’ of China’s progress? Communist Party mouthpiece doesn’t think so

The website of top party mouthpiece People’s Daily published three commentaries earlier this month criticising discussions in the Chinese media that exaggerated China’s technological and military achievements, boasts that are often tinder for public hostility towards the West.

Sources said Beijing sent clear instructions to cadres to tone down public nationalism after China’s delegation led by Vice-Premier Liu He failed to negotiate a trade truce with Washington in May.

“When the Chinese side complained that the US was irrational about trade issues, the US hit back with the nationalism among Chinese media,” a source said in May.

Another source said the Chinese leadership had told state media to tamp down nationalism in public discussions. “Those articles [in People’s Daily] were written in response to opinions from the leadership,” the source said.

It is unclear if the summer conclave will lead to any other shift in policy but Deng said it would offer a platform for discussions about China’s future path.

“It can see some brainstorming and ideas converging because they will be staying near each other and have more chances to discuss matters,” he said.