Early every August, watchers of China’s 7pm state news broadcast will notice it no longer carries details about the itineraries of the nation’s seven most senior Politburo members.
The absence is a sign the leaders are escaping Beijing’s sweltering heat by retreating to the beaches of Beidaihe, a seaside resort in the heart of Bohai Bay about 300km to the east.
While there are no official schedules, agendas or statements acknowledging the closed-door meetings, Beidaihe has long been known as the backstage for intense power jockeying among the top echelons of the Communist Party and where policy direction is decided.
But analysts say the significance of the annual meeting in charting the nation’s course has been ebbing, especially under President Xi Jinping as he moves the party away from its traditional style of collective governing. The public now places more importance on the gatherings than the leaders do, they say.
A recent visit by South China Morning Post found security in Beidaihe is intense, with every vehicle entering Qinhuangdao city required to register and apply for a temporary permit. While there’s no official signs or posters about the meeting, it’s the worst-kept secret in town.
“Beidaihe is the place where top leaders usually take their summer vacations, which means … they could and often gather together to discuss matters that they would not normally do [when] they were taking charge of their respective portfolios full time,” said Professor Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham.
“This is what makes such meetings important – it’s an opportunity for them to discuss matters of interest without the intense pressure of time restraints in the normal working period,” he said.
While Beidaihe shares similarities to Camp David, a retreat for US presidents north of Washington, it is more secretive, partly because it has rarely served as a diplomatic venue.
“The summer holidays are normally followed by the annual autumn plenums, thus the Beidaihe gathering is easily perceived as a preamble to the ensuing conference, where major policies are formally made and announced,”said Warren Sun, a historian of the Communist Party at Monash University, referring to the annual meeting of the 200 or so members of the Central Committee. “Little wonder there is intense media interest in this Masonic club gathering.”
This year’s retreat had in particular generated much attention, Sun said, pointing to a backdrop of “continuing economic underperformance, foreign policy setbacks, and the approaching 19th party congress when a massive number of leaders are due to be replaced”.
Since the early 1950s, the densely treed compound dotted with two-story orange-roofed villas along a stretch of sandy beach has replaced Beijing’s Zhongnanhai to become the centre of political gravity every summer, after Mao Zedong initiated the “summer office system” bringing top-level government bodies to the resort to carry out their administrative duties.
It was in the summer of 1958 that Mao ordered the shelling of the Taiwanese-held island of Quemoy, as well as the launch of the People’s Commune system and the Great Leap Forward.
Despite the attention it receives, the Beidaihe meeting has lost much of the political significance it once held, analysts said. “Outsiders tend to talk about Beidaihe as if it were the same as before. In the past, it offered an occasion where retired and [incumbent] leaders came together to discuss future plans. But I don’t think that’s the case any more,” said Bo Zhiyue, a professor of Chinese politics at Victoria University in Wellington.
Bo noted that former president Hu Jintao abolished the “summer office system” in 2003, soon after he took over the country’s top job from Jiang Zemin.
Since then, Beidaihe has been less of a venue for major decision-making than a place for leaders, model workers and leading scholars to “have a little break”, Bo said.
This year, 56 academics and researchers were invited to the resort for a five-day holiday, bringing the total since 2001 to more than 900, state media reported.
The political significance of the Beidaihe gatherings had faded even more under Xi, as he increasingly replaced collective leadership with “one-man rule” and sought to keep the influence of retired leaders at arms’ length, Bo said.
Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science, agreed. “Xi is reducing the opportunities for the so-called party elders to meddle in politics, in order to make space for a more institutionalised and formal process of decision-making,” Chen said.
Sun acknowledged the Beidaihe gathering was “increasingly meant for collective relaxation and luxury holidays at the expense of the state purse”.
However, Sun noted that regardless of whether any formal meetings took place at the resort, “in a regime where networking is paramount and informal politics is still salient, such an occasion of ‘head-bumping’ and social interaction among the current and retired decision-makers is bound to have political significance”.
“The disproportional importance attached by the public to the Beidaihe gathering is simply a reflection of the informal politics ruled by man, not the transparent rule of law, in China,” he said.