Chinese communist leaders often hold their informal meetings in Beidaihe, a touristic community 180km from Beijing on the Bohai Sea coast. Along the strand of beach, where these days the skyscrapers dominate the skyline, the leaders of the 80 million-member CCP reunite to discuss party business. A sign, backed by police, serves to discourage the curiosity of journalists and tourists before they can get close to the powerful.
Beidaihe has long forgotten is pioneering origins, when the invading foreigners built it as a retreat from the torrid summer heat of the country’s capital. Also long forgotten are the days when Mao Zedong, and then Deng Xiaoping, would gather their fellow party members, red mandarins upon whose shoulders weighed the leadership of a giant nation. People and policy were chosen during secret meetings and lavish banquets in smoky rooms drowned in Maotai liquor. The political accord went hand in hand with the feeling of community and familiarity. Far from the communist liturgy, the party leaders demonstrated a mix of charisma and power.
It was from the military airport of Beidaihe that Lin Biao took off in 1971, before crashing in the deserts of Mongolia following a failed coup attempt. It seemed that an enclave like Beidaihe would no longer be necessary following the last of the great leaders. From 2003, following his election to General Secretary, Hu Jintao had prohibited the Party from meeting there, leaving the seaside community to enjoy the charms of its past. Hu promised a more scientific style, increased transparency, more democratic procedures, and a continuing confirmation of the results. Even the analysts would now have to begin studying the socio-political dynamics more closely, instead of portraying China as a theater of intrigue and betrayal. Beidaihe was a mirror for the mysteries of the court, of literary suggestion, and of the Chinese traditional opacity combined with the dullness of democratic centralism.
But it was the outgoing Secretary himself, after 10 years in office, who resumed the custom. He did it in a most informal way, without the climate of reverential fear that used to surround the formally holiday period. Chinese television announced some important names while other names leaked in the local news, and still others were caught by the international press. For the whole month of August, Beidaihe is once again the stage of a communist party gathering.
If the tradition has been reignited, then it must mean the stakes are both high and delicate. Hu’s reassuring presence, the bulwark of his many international successes, the accolades of his economic results will no longer be sufficient to guarantee a linear transition of power. The first checkpoint will be the 18th People’s Congress in October, the precise date of which has yet to be announced. The fourth generation of the Party will step aside to make room for the first generation of leaders born after the liberation of 1949, who have known only one, socialist, society.
These elements combined still do not appear able to provide the kind painless transition, accompanied by the insincere applause, that the Party has grown accustomed to. Hu is exiting the picture after two mandates, but will be careful not to overshadow his successor. He will write an authorized autobiography and will most likely find himself a role as an adviser behind the scenes. Before handing over his post to Xi Jinping, however, Hu will attempt to continue his mandate by composing a Politburo of his followers. In particular, he will try to influence the nine members of the Standing Committee, who are the true captains of China’s destiny, but the selection is anything but certain. The saga of Bo Xilai, who disappeared from the public view following his removal as Party boss in Chongqing, hovers above the new leadership like a Shakespearean ghost. Bo was a candidate for the Politburo, representing the neo-Maoist faction.
Bo Xilai’s exit has likely strengthened the reformers, or at least those who are faithful to the current direction. What is most noteworthy following the meetings at Beidaihe is the confirmation that the transition will in fact be complex and difficult. The new Secretary will be an expression of a synthesis of ideas, unifying the various social interests represented by the Party: from local governments to businessmen, from banks to the youth that will no longer tolerate a one-way flow of information. He will also have to contend with a change in continuity, as he will no longer be able to follow the path carved by Hu.
The sea of crisis has now become a gale-force storm. China will have to make its choice in a world that is much more complicated than it was 10 years ago, and the new Secretary will need consent while remaining steadfast. Accomplishing both will not be an easy task, but reopening a traditional summer getaway certainly can’t hurt.