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Where China’s leadership takes a political dive

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Party chief Wang Dongfeng (王东峰) is the most powerful man in Beijing’s neighboring province of Hebei. He personally inspected all police checkpoints on July 30 on the roads leading to the sea at Beidaihe. China’s famous seaside resort, a 280-kilometer highway drive from Beijing, falls under the jurisdiction of his province. Wang expressed satisfaction with the checkpoints, which are equipped with cutting-edge high-tech. He considered them “key defense points to guarantee China’s social harmony and stability,” adding that combined air and ground defense and the use of science and technology such as “facial surveillance and artificial intelligence” can ward off threats. Wang was probably thinking particularly of protecting China’s State and Party leader Xi Jinping. Because Xi’s name is mentioned a total of seven times in the report on provincial leader Wang by Hebei Daily, published on August 2nd.

Beijing’s political elite disappears

For those who didn’t know, Xi and his inner circle were on their way to Beidaihe for their annual summer break. This is where Beijing’s elite retreat every year to their villas hidden among pine and cedar forests on the Lotus Mountain above a western beach closed off to them. The political elite is the real target of the submissive report in the Hebei daily. China’s top leaders are so paranoid when it comes to their security and secrecy that they don’t even disclose if, how long and where they are vacationing. They just disappear off the face of the earth. Only the Foreign Ministry provides a little insight: on July 30, it made the following announcement on its website: “We are taking a summer break (暑期) from August 2 to 13.” This is the period when China’s leaders take a vacation.

A picture of the beach at Beidaihe: In the background to the left, in front of the lotus mountains, a barrier is visible, which separates the public beach (in the front) from the heavily guarded exclusive beach for China’s leadership.

But for those who read between the lines, the report on the party chief’s inspection is the first of two indirect clues Beijing’s party elite uses every year to publicly announce its departure to Beidaihe. This was revealed on August 10 by the well-connected news website Duowei Xinwen. So far, the second hint has always come shortly after their arrival at the seaside resort. Since 2000, China’s party leadership has granted a group of selected Chinese scientists a one-week special vacation in Beidaihe each year. China’s party chief personally sends two trusted subordinates of his politoffice to greet them on his behalf. This year, the well-established announcement procedures that the leaders gather at Beidaihe was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic – as it was in 2020. By 2019, China’s Party leadership had hosted a total of 19 such groups annually, the People’s Daily reported.

Informal consultations

Why is it important to know China’s leaders are vacationing with their families in Beidaihe? The town, with a population of 80,000, not only serves as a place for them to relax, but also provides a backdrop for them to confer informally before their autumn conferences. Any indication of this is not only closely observed by the entire country, but also by hordes of officials from the government, ministries, and military who are also vacation in Beidaihe, but are housed separately from China’s elite in hundreds of distant guesthouses and spa’s, and, despite their close proximity, learn nothing new.

The CCP beach resort of Beidaihe is covered in political slogans. In the foreground on the beach fence, Xi Jinping’s name is part of a slogan. The celebrity beach can be seen in the background.

Whenever Beijing’s leaders take their vacation by the sea, it traditionally causes high political waves, the fringes of which are felt not until much later. Mao Zedong was a master at this, spending his summer holidays in Beidaihe a total of eleven times from 1954 onwards. For this purpose, he had his entire party court, government and military follow him from Beijing from July to August to continue their work in Beidaihe. Soon, the seaside resort was called “Xiadu” (夏都) – the summer capital of China. This was until 2003, when then-party leader Hu Jintao had ordered that no more official party meetings and government conferences were to be held in Beidaihe. The summer resort, which had also been open to normal tourists since 1979, nevertheless never became a real holiday destination.

Mao made far-reaching decisions at the seaside resort

Under Mao, dozens of momentous decisions for China’s development were made in Beidaihe. Western mockers called it a place where not only the country’s top shots but also its socialism repeatedly went under. Revolutionary Mao saw his swimming in the sea as an act of resistance against all currents that did not suit him. In August 1958, he decided in Beidaihe that China’s society was ripe for a Great Leap Forward “into communism”. Tens of millions of people starved to death as a result. At Beidaihe, he made plans for his invasion of Taiwan, which led to the artillery bombardment of Taiwan’s Qinmen Island on August 23, 1958 (the Quemoy Crisis) and almost started a world war. In August 1962, from Beidaihe, he propagated his terrible doctrine of never-ending class struggle, which became the theoretical justification for his murderous Cultural Revolution. Successor Deng Xiaoping set the tone for his reforms at Beidaihe. He demanded that China would “learn to swim in the sea of the market economy” as a metaphor for solving the socialism Mao had run down.

What Xi is currently hammering out with his closest confidants won’t be known for a few years. However, nothing good can be expected. China’s current policies are not only facing international opposition. Xi is heading for his difficult 20th party congress next year, where a generational change in the party leadership is on the agenda. Almost all are expected to retire, save for him, since he already constitutionally secured his continued stay in office. Xi alone will then turn the personnel carousel.

Generation change is imminent

With Beijing not disclosing any details, speculation is running wild: Even the outward atmosphere in Beidaihe is tense as never before, a Japanese reporter told news agency Nikkei. When he arrived in Beidaihe on July 23, a week prior to the expected arrival of the party elite, his car was searched and he was falsely accused of illegally breaking through barriers. After he was allowed to continue, he was constantly tailed by two police cars.

Once upon a time, the mysterious Beidaihe and what Beijing’s leaders were up to there, was considered an indicator of China’s politics. It still is, just less measurable.

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