How an Unofficial Seaside Meeting of Unelected Chinese Men Decides the Country’s Future
Imagine if, for a few days a year, the president, his administration, congressional leaders, the Supreme Court, and high ranking officers of the U.S. military took a vacation to Cape Cod and plotted—in secret—the path for America to follow until the next session. They would also decide who’s next to be promoted, and who is to be eliminated.
Though not mandated by any formal policy or protocol, for decades Chinese regime leaders have done just that, convening every summer at the resort town of Beidaihe, located a few dozen miles away from Beijing on the coast of the Bohai Sea.
It’s a change of scenery from the rubber-stamp bureaus and offices of Beijing. For the top cadres of the Communist Party, the meeting functions as a private, relatively casual means of discussion and expression in a political system that otherwise places tremendous worth on the regime’s monolithic public appearance.
The agreements reached here are the subject of heated media speculation. Rumors and analysis abound, and even when the Party administration announces its policy changes at official events, the vague, politically loaded statements often obscure as much as they reveal.
The gossip this year relates to a series of major new proposed appointments in the political apparatus: moving a key official from the Politburo into the Politburo Standing Committee; moving a Party official from Shanghai into a higher post in Beijing, and so on.
There are also losers of the wrangling that precedes Beidaihe. Around the time of the meeting this year—whose date is not even known—Party leaders affected the sudden purge of a powerful former security leader, Zhou Benshun, whose most recent role was party secretary of Hebei Province, the region surrounding Beijing, and where Beidaihe is located. Before that, Zhou was a personal assistant to Zhou Yongkang (no relation), an even more powerful official who ruled the security apparatus until his retirement in 2012. He was sentenced to life in prison last month.
All along, the political meetings at Beidaihe have been the subject of intense speculation, given the gravity of decisions that have emanated from its seaside compounds.
Mao the Swimmer
Meetings at Beidaihe started in the early years of communist rule when Communist Party officials would make the trip from Beijing to report to Chairman Mao at the town, where he spent much of the summer. Over the years, high-ranking officials built their own residences in the area and the custom of convening in Beidaihe to sort out state affairs stuck.
Mao, an avid swimmer, was known for his ventures out into the waters of the Bohai. According to the state-run China Daily, Mao first visited Beidaihe in 1954 and loved the town so much that he wrote a poem in its praise.
Decisions said to have been foreshadowed at Beidaihe before becoming policy include the disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign of the 1950s, which brought about the starvation of approximately 40 million people, and the unveiling of former General Secretary Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” ideological theory in 2000. More recently, the downfall and trial of former Chinese security chief Zhou Yongkang, and prior to that, the fate of his ally Bo Xilai, are speculated to have been discussed at the resort in 2012 and 2013.
Economics on the Agenda?
Signs that this year’s Beidaihe meetings may have already begun have emerged. Most conspicuous was the absence of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee from any reports from July 17 to July 28.
The Standing Committee is the Communist Party’s highest executive body. It includes General Secretary Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
According to a June 23 report by the Hong Kong Economic Times, this year’s meetings are likely to address China’s 13th Five-Year Plan. While some personnel shifts have been rumored, major changes are unlikely, analysts said, based on the assumption that Xi Jinping, having led a comprehensive anti-corruption campaign directed at his political enemies in the Party, has already made the desired adjustments to various roles.
The 13th Five-Year Plan in particular stands out as a matter of concern, stated the Hong Kong paper, as Xi, who has been in office as Party head since 2013, gauges economic performance since the start of the 12th Five-Year Plan in 2011.
According to an article by the Deutsche Welle, the 2015 Beidaihe meeting will address the future progress of the Communist Party’s anti-corruption campaign, specifically in relation to the continued pursuit of so-called tigers—officials of national-level significance targeted by China’s central authorities. Another point of concern is military reform: Deutsche Welle forecasts the creation of a “united operational command” and the redesignation of military zones into “theaters.”