July 21, 2012
By EDWARD WONG and JONATHAN ANSFIELD
BEIDAIHE, China — Clutching a wooden cane and aided by an entourage of young people, the old man in a black silk shirt and matching shorts hobbled up the stairs to Kiessling, a decades-old Austrian restaurant not far from the teeming beaches of this seaside resort. He sat on the balcony and ordered ice cream. It was the best in town, he told his companions. At least it had been in his youth.
“This man is a relative of Zhou Enlai,” the restaurant manager said in a low voice to some foreign diners at a nearby table, referring to the revered prime minister of China in the Mao era. “He’s come here before. He stays in the neighborhood where the leaders live.”
In any other city, even Beijing, it would be unusual to casually run into a relative of Mr. Zhou. But it is midsummer in Beidaihe, which means one thing: Communist Party elders and their families are congregating here, about 180 miles east of Beijing, to swim and dine and gossip — and to shape the future of the world’s most populous nation.
It is palace intrigue by the sea. In their guarded villas, current and past leaders will negotiate to try to place allies in the 25-member Politburo and its elite Standing Committee, at the top of the party hierarchy. The selections will be announced at the 18th Party Congress this fall in Beijing, heralding what is expected to be only the second orderly leadership transition in more than 60 years of Communist rule.
“This is where the factional struggles are settled and the decisions are made,” said one resident, surnamed Li, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of Chinese politics. “At the meetings in the fall, everyone just raises their hands.”
Beidaihe is a Chinese combination of the Jersey Shore and Martha’s Vineyard, with a pinch of red fervor: the hilly streets and public beaches are packed with shirtless Russians and Chinese families, while the party elites remain hidden in their villas and on their private patches of sand. A clock tower near Kiessling chimes “The East is Red,” a classic Mao anthem.
The security presence has surged in recent weeks. Police officers in light blue uniforms patrol on Suzuki motorcycles and stand on street corners watching for jaywalkers. They have set up a checkpoint on the main road leading into town.
The informal talks are expected to start late this month and run into August, continuing a tradition that went into partial eclipse after China’s top leader, President Hu Jintao, took over from Jiang Zemin in 2002, and ordered party and government offices to stop more formal operations from the seaside during the summer palaver. But Mr. Jiang reportedly chafed at that and continued hobnobbing here with his allies. There was a notable conclave here in 2007 that Mr. Hu attended, to pave the way for the 17th Party Congress, according to scholars and a State Department cable disclosed by WikiLeaks.
In any case, politicking is inevitable when party elders show up to escape the stifling heat and pollution of Beijing.
Westerners began building up Beidaihe as a summer retreat in the late 19th century, as the Qing dynasty waned. When the People’s Liberation Army entered in 1948, the resort had 719 villas, according to China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper.
Communist leaders began vacationing here. Mao was an avid swimmer and dove eagerly into the waters of the Bohai Sea. He convened formal conclaves here. His successor, Deng Xiaoping, made the meetings into annual events (he also took swims, supposedly to counter rumors of his ailing health).
The most infamous event at Beidaihe involved Lin Biao, a Communist marshal whom Mao accused of plotting a coup. On Sept. 13, 1971, after the coup attempt was supposedly discovered, Mr. Lin fled his villa here with his wife and a son and boarded a plane at the local airport. Their destination was the Soviet Union, but the plane crashed in Mongolia, killing everyone on board.
There are plots and counterplots this year, too. Negotiations here will be complicated by the continuing scandal over Bo Xilai, the deposed Politburo member who was most recently party chief of Chongqing. Some political observers had expected that by now the party would have concluded the investigation into Mr. Bo and his wife, who is suspected of killing a British businessman. Several people with high-level party ties say that Mr. Bo, who is being held in secret and without charges, is fighting back against interrogators, and that party leaders are having a difficult time deciding how to resolve his case.
During the negotiations, each current Standing Committee member should, at least in theory, have considerable say in determining the successor to his particular post. But party elders behind the scenes sometimes wield more authority. Mr. Jiang, though retired and ailing last year, may carry the greatest weight next to that of Mr. Hu. The heir apparent, Vice President Xi Jinping, also plays a role.
“Consensus among these three — the former, current and incoming leaders — is extremely important,” said Zhang Xiaojin, a political scientist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
A flurry of activity in recent months has laid the groundwork. In May, more than 300 senior cadres were asked at a meeting to list the officials they thought should make the Politburo Standing Committee, where all the seats are in play except for the top two. Those are expected to go to Mr. Xi and Li Keqiang, who is slated to take over as prime minister.
Polling of senior party members was also done before the 2007 congress. Such surveys are intended as reference points only, though they have become increasingly important. Talk is swirling in Beijing over the results of the May polling. One member of the party elite said several people associated with Mr. Hu’s political base did not do well. Two insiders said one person who ranked high was Wang Qishan, a vice prime minister who oversees the financial sector.
Party leaders are considering reducing the number of Standing Committee seats to seven from nine, as was the case as recently as 2002, many insiders say. Mr. Hu is believed to support the change, which is in part aimed at curbing the entrenchment of interest groups at the top. That could mean taking two portfolios — probably propaganda and one dubbed “politics and law” that encompasses domestic security — and either adding them to the duties of other leaders or downgrading them to the Politburo level.
“With fewer people, they can concentrate power and increase their efficiency,” said one official at a state news media organization.
But there are other possible motives. The rapid expansion of security powers under Zhou Yongkang, the current Standing Committee member who heads the politics and law committee and supported Mr. Bo, has alarmed some party leaders, political analysts say. Since assuming the post in 2007, Mr. Zhou has capitalized on Mr. Hu’s focus on stability to build up the security apparatus, whose budget this year is officially $111 billion, $5 billion more than the military budget.
“The politics and law apparatus has grown too powerful,” an intelligence official said. “A lot of us feel this way.”
A contraction of the Standing Committee could also hurt those vying for seats who are not among the very top candidates, most notably Wang Yang, the party chief of Guangdong Province, who cultivates a progressive image.
The size and structure of the leadership have been a matter of continuing discussion. One analyst with ties to officials involved in party planning said that at the May meeting, cadres were also asked to submit their views on changing the composition of the party’s upper echelons, in a glimpse of what may be called intraparty democracy. Though few changes were expected anytime soon, “a lot of people had very different ideas,” he said.
Those debates are remote from the lives of most people in Beidaihe. Yet talk of politics flows loosely here. At a beach reserved for local officials, next to an almost-deserted patch of sand blocked off for party leaders, a retired official in swim trunks pointed to the villas across the road. He said the children of party leaders had made off with too much money through corrupt practices in state industries.
Emblematic of the distance between officials and those they rule, he said, is the fact that the party leaders vacationing here nowadays refuse to go into the sea, which is brown from runoff. Ordinary people swim in those waters, but the leaders take dips in swimming pools, including one built recently that is filled with filtered seawater.
“What are they good for?” the retired official asked. “What did they inherit from their fathers? They should have inherited the solidarity of the revolution.”
Patrick Zuo and Clare Pennington contributed research from Beijing.