The History of Seaside Secrecy at Beidaihe

The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon reported today that the heavily-securitized meetings in which China’s highest-level officials are suspected to have determined who will soon take the reins of CCP power have ended in Beidaihe. Party gatherings in this resort area by the shore of the Bohai are part of an inner-party tradition started by Chairman Mao himself:

The tradition of Chinese leaders gathering at Beidaihe dates back to the time of Mao Zedong, who loved to swim in the waters of Bohai Bay and wrote a poem entitled Beidaihe. Deng Xiaoping was photographed swimming in the same waters just months after he ordered the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.

The Economist has more on the backstory of this coastal CCP retreat, mentioning that this year’s gathering marks the restoration of a practice halted by Hu Jintao at the beginning of his presidential career, a fact that may speak to China’s current political situation:

This year’s meeting at Beidaihe revives a grand tradition that was started in the 1950s by Mao Zedong, perpetuated in the 1980s and 1990s by Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, but then downgraded nine years ago by Hu Jintao.

Mr Hu, the one who is expected to be replaced by Mr Xi in the process that starts with the 18th Congress, won praise from some commentators in 2003 when he ordered an end to the annual leadership sojourn at Beidaihe. A commentary at the time in one state-run newspaper called it “a populist measure for clean government that will stir people’s hearts”.

The revival of the tradition this year seems a product of China’s particularly fraught political climate, and testament to the utility of a discreet and informal venue for hashing out difficult issues. Party Congresses happen only every five years, and this year’s will be the first in ten years charged with selecting a new generation of leaders. The need to satisfy competing constituencies and patronage networks within China’s political elite is always a delicate and painstaking balancing act. This time, the task has been further complicated by turbulence stemming from the sensational murder case that led to the downfall this spring of Bo Xilai.

In 1954, Mao Zedong honored this seaside refuge by laying down calligraphy for the poem “Waves Washing Sand: Beidaihe” [浪淘沙·北戴河].

Also see “At Beidaihe, a Swim Test for China’s Leaders“, via CDT.