Where China’s top leaders go in summer and in secret: a brief history of Beidaihe
Its role and scope have evolved through decades and leaders, but the gathering at the coastal town, which dates back to Mao, has remained closely guarded
When state radio reported on Wednesday that Premier Li Keqiang met United Nations General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa in Beidaihe, it was the clearest confirmation that the annual summer gathering of China’s most influential politicians was taking place at the northern Chinese seaside resort.
Despite no exact opening or closing or official agenda, the summer conclave – described variously as a “meeting” or “holiday” over the past six decades – has mirrored the changing landscape of China’s politics.
It was Chairman Mao Zedong, one of the key founders of the People’s Republic in 1949, who initiated senior party and government officials in Beijing to work at the famed seaside town of Beidaihe as early as 1953.
Instead of the capital, all crucial meetings in the summer were held in Beidaihe from then on. In August 1958, party elites headed by Mao made two key decisions during an expanded meeting of the party’s Politburo held in the resort: building people’s communes in rural areas across the nation and the cannon bombardment of Quemoy, the Taiwan-controlled offshore island, also called Kinmen.
The closed-door meetings were suspended for nearly two decades in the aftermath of the outbreak of the notorious Cultural Revolution in 1966.
Late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping came to power after Mao’s death and decided to resume the annual gathering in 1984.
Party elders and most members of the party’s decision-making Politburo gathered in Beidaihe to come up with the party’s new leadership a few months ahead of its five-yearly national congress, which brought major power reshuffles in late 1987.
Deng was effectively pulling the strings behind the scenes in power plays within the party even when he held no key position except the head of the Central Military Commission with the People’s Liberation Army.
One family member of a party elder who wielded huge political power for nearly two decades after Deng took power in 1978 told the South China Morning Post the closed-door meeting in those days usually started in mid-July and lasted for nearly two months.
“For those party elites with the ranking of a Politburo member or above, they were entitled to take one family member along with them and board a special train, which carries only one state leader to the site per day.”
Another source who had been invited to spend a week or two in the resort each year said that the security was tight not only at the site but also during the journey for the top leaders. He said that People’s Armed Police officers stood guard every 200 metres along the nearly 300km railway linking Beijing to Beidaihe when a special train passed through.
Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Former President Jiang Zemin followed the rule set by the party’s revolutionary veterans after Deng’s death in 1997.
That summer, all key reshuffles of the next Politburo, and Jiang’s five-yearly work report draft, to be presented at the Communist Party national congress late in the year, were deliberated among party elders and political heavyweights at Beidaihe before they gave their blessing.
Jiang’s successor Hu Jintao, however, decided to scrap the annual summer meeting in 2003, less than a year after he took the top job as the party’s General Secretary.
“According to a decision made by the Central Authorities, leaders with the party’s Central Committee, the State Council, or the Cabinet, the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the Central Military Commission will no longer go to work in Beidaihe,” reported the People’s Daily, the party’s mouthpiece, in July 2003.
The report underlined that neither ministers nor commission heads with the central government was allowed to set foot in Beidaihe during the summer.
Yet despite the bureaucracy being left behind in Beijing, the top leaders continued their seaside gatherings.
By the time Xi Jinping took the party’s helm in late 2012 – even though he had two living predecessors who might have watched over his shoulder, during a general decline of party elders’ influence and Xi’s consolidation of power – the political significance of the Beidaihe gathering, now described as the leadership’s retreat, has ebbed.
The source close to a party elder said: “Unlike the practice in 1980s and 1990s, in which there was at least one issue or two scheduled to be discussed in Beidaihe, nobody knows for the time being whether there is any agenda or meeting in the resort, although party elites are supposed to be all there to spend their summer holidays.”