INNER SANCTUM (1): At secretive Zhongnanhai, decisions are made that can change the world

July 29, 2013


Editor’s note: This is the first part of our fifth series on the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Previously, we described the downfall of rising star Bo Xilai, profiled the powerful children of high-ranking party members, explained the leadership shift in 2012, and illustrated the role played by the Communist Youth League in the careers of past and current leaders. The latest series, “Inner sanctum,” focuses on Zhongnanhai, the secluded compound in central Beijing where the top-ranking officials of the Communist Party Central Committee work. The series will appear on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

* * *

The reaction was swift when a middle-aged woman stopped on a sidewalk in central Beijing around 9 a.m. and opened a cloth bag. Police officers immediately surrounded the woman and hustled her away.

It was unclear if she was about to take out a hazardous material or simply a towel to wipe away her perspiration.

But her detention on June 18 underscores the tight security around Zhongnanhai, a compound west of the Forbidden City where policy decisions are made for the world’s second-largest economy and its population exceeding 1 billion.

Shrouded in mystery, this inner sanctum of the Communist Party and Chinese government also makes decisions that can change the course of global events.

Zhongnanhai can refer to the location where policies are made by the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. It also describes the top leadership that makes these decisions.

The term is used in a similar manner as the White House in the United States and the Blue House in South Korea. It also conjures up the images associated with the Prime Minister's Official Residence in Japan as well as the Kremlin under the former Soviet Union.

Zhongnanhai was where Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai once lived, and the venue for historic meetings with visiting foreign leaders, such as U.S. President Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka.

Zhongnanhai is now led by General Secretary Xi Jinping.

“The ultimate decision on how to handle the Diaoyu Islands issue can only be made in Zhongnanhai,” said a diplomatic official who has access to Zhongnanhai.

Diaoyu is the Chinese name for the Senkaku Islands, which have been at the center of a sovereignty dispute between Japan and China.

In China, the Communist Party always takes precedence over the government.

“Orders are issued to government departments, like the Foreign Ministry, (only after a decision is made by top party leadership) and policy is then implemented,” the diplomatic source said.

A researcher at a government-affiliated think tank said: “Important decisions for China are made in Zhongnanhai that is shrouded in secrecy. Since even we are not sure about what occurs there, there is likely no way for foreigners to understand what goes on there.”

The wide-ranging influence of Zhongnanhai was evident in April in Dandong, Liaoning province, near the border with North Korea.

Wearing suits, high-ranking officials of North Phyongan province across the Yalu river in North Korea visited Dandong to ask a favor of municipal government officials, according to sources.

“We want you to resume exports of petroleum," the North Koreans asked.

Dandong officials did not respond to the request.

“Nothing can be done unless a decision is made by the central government,” a source said.

After Pyongyang launched what was effectively a long-range ballistic missile last December, the Chinese government expressed strong displeasure toward its long-time ally.

A pipeline between the two nations--a symbol of their strong ties--continued to pump petroleum into North Korea. However, Chinese officials suspended travel by petroleum tankers from Dandong and Dalian.

Although the volume of petroleum exported through those tankers is limited, the North Korean officials still called for a resumption of the shipments.

China has been taking stricter measures against North Korea for its belligerence. The four major state-run commercial banks have stopped money transfers to North Korea, while customs inspections have become much stricter.

North Koreans who enter and leave China now have to strictly abide by a baggage restriction of 20 kilograms.

In the past, enforcement of such rules was much more lax, leading to criticism about loopholes in international economic sanctions against North Korea.

“(The stricter measures) express the intentions of the top leadership not to give North Korea special treatment,” said a source with a government-affiliated think tank. “Those decisions were all made in Zhongnanhai.”


On June 22, the official vehicle for the North Korean ambassador to China rolled up to the VIP gate at Beijing Airport.

Emerging from the black Mercedes was Kim Kye Gwan, the North Korean first vice foreign minister.

Smiling to waiting reporters, Kim said, “There will be more opportunities to meet in the future,” and then he entered the terminal building.

Kim was in Beijing for the first “strategic dialogue” involving vice foreign ministers of China and North Korea.

The relationship between the two nations has often been described as “an alliance solidified in blood,” a reference to the huge numbers of volunteer soldiers dispatched from China to help North Korea fight the Korean War that began in 1950.

Until now, the relationship has depended on the ties between the Chinese Communist Party and the Workers’ Party of Korea as well as the militaries of the two nations.

However, the establishment of a forum for strategic dialogue is expected to increase the number of settlements through negotiations between government officials of the two nations.

“That signifies that the China-North Korea relationship is no longer the special one of the past,” said a source with a Chinese government-affiliated think tank. “North Korea will be treated just like any other foreign nation.”

That shift was decided by the Central Leading Group for Foreign Affairs of the Communist Party.

The actual makeup of the group is not publicized. Among those taking part are the leaders of relevant ministries, such as the Foreign Ministry, Commerce Ministry and Public Security Ministry, as well as the national defense minister and the deputy chief of General Staff Headquarters in the military.

The group is headed by Xi, while the deputy head is Li Yuanchao, a Politburo member who is also China’s vice president. The director of the group is Yang Jiechi, the former foreign minister who now serves as state councilor. Foreign Minister Wang Yi is another member of the group.

Meetings of the central leading group are held in Zhongnanhai or the Great Hall of the People.

In early 2011, a group of about 10 experts on North Korea, including researchers at government-affiliated think tanks and university professors, held several meetings at Zhongnanhai.

The opinions expressed by the specialists were later submitted to the central leading group.

According to a party source knowledgeable about those meetings, many opinions expressed were critical of the policy then being taken toward North Korea.

“The relations with the United States and South Korea should not be sacrificed by being overly protective of North Korea,” one participant said.

Another said, “Considering North Korea to be a buffer zone for China’s national security is an outdated way of thinking from the Cold War.”

As a result, the central leading group decided to emphasize cooperation with the United States and South Korea in stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program as well as to abide by any sanctions agreed to by the United Nations.

After Pyongyang launched the ballistic missile and conducted a nuclear test, China took a stricter stance toward North Korea in terms of petroleum exports, banking and customs.

A bank source said that in addition to the suspension of money transfers by the four major state-run banks, Chinese authorities have intensified oversight of bank accounts in China held by North Koreans and have begun rooting out fake accounts.

“There was a gray zone until now in which China took a more relaxed stance,” a North Korean government source said. “However, regulations have begun to be enforced in a much stricter manner.”

A source with a Chinese government-affiliated think tank said: “Everything was decided by the central leading group. Policy toward the Korean Peninsula will likely change further in the future.”


The middle-aged woman who was taken away by police officers was near the Xiahuamen gate facing Changan Avenue, which runs east-west through central Beijing. The walls are painted a reddish color, and behind the double-roofed gate a slogan reads, “Serve the people.”

The walls around the compound are easily twice the height of an average adult, and security cameras were evident in many locations.

Zhongnanhai is said to date back to the Jin Dynasty of the 12th century. While work continued during the Yuan and Ming dynasties, its present form was completed during the Qing Dynasty.

According to available Chinese government documents, the compound covers about 100 hectares. About 150 pavilions and buildings have been built along three artificial ponds formed through the construction of two bridges.

The area around the northern pond has been turned into a public park, while the remaining area around the two other ponds now makes up the Zhongnanhai compound.

Only a few of the highest ranking party officials have offices in the compound. They include the 25 Politburo members of the Central Committee as well as the seven Politburo Standing Committee members.

A mixture of traditional palaces and modern office buildings can be found in the compound. The entire area is cut off from the clamor of modern Beijing just outside the walls.

According to a former official of the General Office of the Central Committee, which provides support for the work done by the Politburo Standing Committee members, the seven members work in Qinzhengdian (hall of industrious government).

The offices are connected by a maze-like network of hallways.

Beds and shower rooms can be found in the building, along with rooms staffed by associates and bodyguards. There is even an underground room.

(This article was written by Koichiro Ishida in Dandong, Nozomu Hayashi in Beijing and Kenji Minemura.)

  • 1
submit to reddit
A slogan next to the Xinhuamen gate of the Zhongnanhai compound facing Changan Avenue in central Beijing says, "Long live the great Communist Party of China." (Atsushi Okudera)

A slogan next to the Xinhuamen gate of the Zhongnanhai compound facing Changan Avenue in central Beijing says, "Long live the great Communist Party of China." (Atsushi Okudera)

  • A slogan next to the Xinhuamen gate of the Zhongnanhai compound facing Changan Avenue in central Beijing says, "Long live the great Communist Party of China." (Atsushi Okudera)
  • The Zhongnanhai compound as seen from Beijing Park just north of the compound (Atsushi Okudera)
  • The Asahi Shimbun
  • The Asahi Shimbun

More AJW