On a rainy midsummer day in late July, thick forests of deep green pine trees were veiled in fog at the Chinese beach resort of Beidaihe.
From the misty peak of Mount Lianfeng, the red roofs of Western-style buildings could be seen interspersed among the trees.
The Beidaihe district, a three-hour drive east of Beijing, is a summer retreat in Hebei province on the Bohai Sea coast.
The district is also known for backroom wheeling and dealing among China’s political big guns. Every summer, political leaders and Communist Party doyens travel to the resort to huddle in smoke-filled rooms to make decisions on key policy issues and personnel affairs.
This function as a venue for annual political power games in summer has earned the district such sobriquets as “Zhongnanhai of Summer” and the “Summer Capital.” The real Zhongnanhai is the walled compound for senior leaders and their families in the heart of Beijing. There is a special area of Mount Liangfeng dedicated to summer houses of top party and government officials and their families.
This summer, Beidaihe is bustling with political horse trading more than usual because of the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress, slated for this autumn, when China’s once-a-decade leadership transition will take place.
Before the 16th National Congress, held a decade ago, and also before the 17th National Congress, which took place five years ago, what was called a “preparatory” meeting was held in Beidaihe. Just 10 years ago, key members of the new administration led by President Hu Jintao were determined in such a meeting at the resort. Five years ago, it was decided that Hu would be succeeded by Xi Jinping.
All these decisions, however, were made through talks among party bigwigs behind closed doors and not reported by the government-controlled Chinese media.
Sun Zhisheng, who was a reporter for local newspaper Qinhuangdao Daily, is the author of many books on Beidaihe and a walking dictionary of things related to the district.
Beidaihe became a popular summer resort after a new railway line connecting the city of Tianjin with a location close to the seaside district was built in the closing days of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), according to Sun. As the new train service improved access to Beidaihe, Westerners built their villas and churches in the district.
Hu’s villa in Beidaihe is a three-story Western-style house that was originally used by an Italian diplomat who was the husband of fascist leader Benito Mussolini’s daughter, according to Sun.
The No. 1 house in the district, which was used regularly by Mao Tse-tung, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, has been claimed by Hu’s predecessor, former President Jiang Zemin, who is still next in line after Hu on the party ladder.
In 1983, Hu Yaobang, the reformist leader who served as party chairman and general secretary, openly showed his displeasure over plans to build new resort facilities in Beidaihe for senior party, government and military officials. Hu Yaobang was also displeased with the policy to put top priority on the safety of VIPs and posted notice boards throughout areas of Beidaihe warning the general populace to “Keep Out.”
In those days, ordinary citizens were still allowed to enter the special villa area at Mount Lianfeng. But Hu Yaobang, who drew the disfavor of conservative party seniors, fell from power and died in 1989.
In 2003, the year after he was chosen as new party general secretary at the 16th Congress, Hu Jintao, who regarded the fallen party leader as his political mentor, decided to end the party tradition of holding backroom meetings at the seaside resort.
But the tradition came back to life after only several years.
Five summers ago, Hu Jintao failed to lay the political groundwork for promoting Li Keqiang, who was his favorite to succeed him, to the status of vice president, as a step to ensure Li’s future ascent to power.
Again this summer, the road separating Mount Lianfeng and the beach has been closed off. That’s because VIPs use the road when they travel between their villas and the beach.
As a result, buses and cars carrying ordinary citizens, with their access to the seaside route blocked, are forced to take a detour that goes around the mountain on the opposite side.
The easiest way for security guards to carry out their duty is to block the road, said Sun, smiling.
An innkeeper trying to pull in customers lamented that he had been told not to accept any guests for the 10 days from Aug. 1, because an important meeting would be held in the district.
In the past, Mao Tse-tung and Deng Xiaoping enjoyed swimming at the beach in Beidaihe. Deng allowed himself to be photographed with ordinary citizens. Now the part of the beach used by party dignitaries is fenced off from the part for the common people.
From the part of the beach swarming with families, young beachgoers and other vacationers, I looked into the area separated by the fence with a "Keep Out" sign.
On the other side of the fence, the beach was empty. Only one lone elderly man was drifting on the waves with a flotation device.
China’s next leader and key members of the new administration, which will hold the reins of power for the next 10 years, are about to be picked by senior party members talking secretly behind closed doors in forests of Mount Lianfeng, where the burning summer sun is blocked by pine trees.
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Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is chief of The Asahi Shimbun's China General Bureau.
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