Postcard from Beidaihe: Beach politics for China’s elite

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The arrival of hot weather in Beijing spells the start of a sacred summer ritual — the retreat to a beach resort where, this year, party elders will enter into political deliberations over the future leaders of China’s ruling Communist party.

The Soviets had their dachas at Yalta. Donald Trump and the US billionaire crowd prefer Palm Beach. For the Chinese Communist party, there’s Beidaihe, a moon-shaped beach on the shores of the Bohai Sea east of Beijing.

This year, the horse-trading will be especially intense. Most of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the nation’s highest ruling body — are due to retire this autumn, leaving an opening for Xi Jinping, the president, to install his protégés in his second term and underpin his legacy.

“Meetings in Beidaihe don’t really have an agenda,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. Instead, retired leaders, including the elderly Jiang Zemin, who has maintained influence over the party apparatus long past retirement, decamp to the resort for weeks beginning in July. Current leaders shuttle in from Beijing for formal meetings.

The lengthy confab suits the party’s desire for consensus. By the time the 19th party congress is convened this autumn (a date is not yet public) all the decisions will have been hammered out: who fills what posts, which factions get which ministries, and whether or not powerful anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan retires.

Political jostling over the past few months has already resulted in some high-profile proxy battles. Exiled businessman Guo Wengui is firing off sensational allegations against Mr Wang from New York. Meanwhile, anti-corruption investigators have detained Wu Xiaohui, head of acquisitive insurer Anbang, as well as other prominent financiers who have served as “white gloves” — front men — for powerful families.

All this bubbles below the surface in Beidaihe, where it feels as if time has stopped. Communist slogans adorn exclusive villa compounds. Signs in Cyrillic point to “Moscow Beach”. Sanatoria for railway workers dot the town, while hotels for employees of the banking regulator, various ministries and state oil company PetroChina line the main streets.
“Beidaihe was the only place in China you could get real ice cream,” says Sidney Rittenberg, an American who joined the Chinese Communist party in the 1940s. During summer holidays arranged by works units for elite cadres, he would bump into army leaders sunning themselves on the beach. “It was an amazing place. You could walk down the street past Mao’s house and there wasn’t a guard in sight. But you take one step on that lawn and you’re surrounded.”

Mao’s old bungalow is still there: one local says it is untouched and permanently empty. Most of the other bungalows in the exclusive part of town reserved for the inner party have been replaced by mansions hidden behind double rows of hedges and trees. Orderlies with crew cuts, white shirts and dark trousers flit through closed gates as they prepare for the summer arrivals.

With a few weeks to go, the public beach at Beidaihe is given over to Chinese and Russian tourists. But at one quiet restaurant, the summer activities have already kicked off. The name of a retired politburo member floats up from one table. In another corner, patrons in dark polo shirts negotiate a business deal.

It could be a hot summer.

By Lucy Hornby
Financial Times

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