Last week, US President Barack Obama hit a milestone in golf – his 300th round since taking office. He did so in Martha’s Vineyard, a favourite summer haunt of American presidents and the rich.
At the same time, the top Chinese leaders were probably swimming in polluted seawater or lounging on an exclusive stretch of beach in their favourite summer retreat of Beidaihe, 280km east of Beijing.
The difference is that while Obama achieved his dubious honour trailed by reporters and television cameras as he enjoyed the last summer holiday of his presidency, the Chinese state media made no mention of their own leaders’ holidays despite the disappearance from public view of President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Premier Li Keqiang ( 李克強 ) since the beginning of August.
The only sign the Chinese leaders had begun their holidays came on Friday when Xinhua reported Liu Yunshan ( 劉雲山 ), the propaganda tsar and one of the Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, met a group of scholars invited to holiday at the resort. Xinhua emphasised Liu was there on Xi’s behalf.
When the Chinese leaders return to work on Monday, state media are expected to resume their fulsome coverage of their meetings and instructions by pretending the two-week lull never happened.
It has never been clear why Chinese leaders – in contrast to their overseas counterparts – do not publicly acknowledge their summer holidays. It is as if doing so would somehow make them less statesmanlike or harm their self-inflicted propaganda images of working tirelessly for the people.
The Chinese leaders’ annual holidays in Beidaihe have never been a quiet affair, judging by the history books. Many of the momentous changes affecting the course of the People’s Republic since its founding in 1949 stemmed from the closed-door meetings where they strategised, connived, and fought one another to gain the upper hand. All these meetings took place in utmost secrecy, leaving ordinary mainlanders clueless about decisions which would upend their lives.
From 1953, the party’s leadership began meeting in Beidaihe each summer, following in the footsteps of the rich Chinese and foreign diplomats of the former era to escape the summer heat of the capital. Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ) reportedly spent at least four months there in 1954.
The tradition ended with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, but resumed in 1984 when avid swimmer Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) started spending summers there.
In 2003, it was reportedly suspended again by Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) – who had just become president – supposedly on the pretext that moving the government apparatus of the party, government, legislature, and military to the resort was a waste of public money. But the edict did not seem to cover the retired leaders who continued to holiday there.
In 2013, after Xi assumed the leadership, the ritual was apparently revived once more.
Despite the secrecy, the Beidaihe meetings have long been the subject of intense speculation in overseas media, particularly Chinese-language publications.
That’s especially the case this summer, as the retreat comes in the run-up to a key plenum of the party’s central committee, scheduled for October, when the leadership will meet to discuss and approve a new code of conduct to regulate its members, particularly senior officials, as Xi continues to push his anti-graft campaign to consolidate his power.
More importantly, speculation abounds on whether the leaders will discuss the leadership line-up to be unveiled at the party’s 19th congress – expected late next year – when five of the seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee (all bar Xi and Li) will retire.
There are also suggestions that Xi plans to force Li to give up more of his power over economic decisions following a rift over the direction of the economy.
It will probably take days, if not weeks, for the tidbits of their discussions, mixed with frenzied speculation, to make their way into overseas media. Inevitably, such reports will infuriate the leadership as they will add to international concerns over the perceived intensifying political infighting and the leadership’s plans to steer the world’s second largest economy forward.
For that, the Chinese leaders have no one but themselves to blame for failing even to publicly acknowledge the Beidaihe meetings take place.
Wang Xiangwei is the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post. He is now based in Beijing as editorial adviser to the paper