The Summer Capital
Beidaihe, often called “China’s Camp David,” becomes the center of political gravity every summer, as the country’s leaders descend on the small seaside resort to hash out major decisions
It was just another afternoon in early August in Beidaihe, a summer resort in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao, Hebei Province. Our NewsChina reporter was walking down Xihaitan Road, when he was stopped at a roadblock by a police officer. This sudden heavy police presence would have jarred with the sleepy seaside scenery, were it not for the city’s reputation.
“Judging from the level of security, I can tell that top government leaders are gathering here at the moment,” Sun Zhisheng, a cultural consultant for Beidaihe district, told NewsChina.
Having lived and worked in Beidaihe for decades, Sun is used to the yearly step-up of security – the beach resort has served as a “summer base” for top Chinese officials for the last half-century. Although former Chinese President Hu Jintao abolished the yearly decampment during his time in office, the resort still remains a favorite topic for political analysts, since top leaders gather there to discuss important issues like personnel changes and major economic decisions.
Beidaihe, only 258 kilometers away from the capital Beijing, lures the nation’s leadership with its picturesque scenery and favorable climate. Located on the Bohai Bay, the beach resort, whose coastline stretches 22 kilometers from east to west, is known for its cool summers. While most Chinese cities suffer sweltering heat in summer, Beidaihe rarely sees temperatures over 30 degress Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).
With fine sandy beaches and a cool breeze that blows from the richly wooded mountains nearby, Beidaihe was the country’s first summer resort to open to foreigners in 1898, and became a popular tourist destination in the 1930s, with a great many foreigners, particularly Russians, flocking to enjoy modern pastimes such as tennis, golf, bowling and bonfire parties, in addition to the area’s natural beauty.
The resort’s famous sanatoriums, however, did not spring up until after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The new government took over or purchased more than 700 villas abandoned in the Chinese Civil War, and converted them into facilities to accommodate wounded People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers and to offer rest and recuperation for model workers from all walks of life.
Chairman Mao Zedong first visited Beidaihe in the summer of 1951, and enjoyed the beach so much that he stayed until September. That year China saw satisfactory progress in economic development, and Beidaihe’s coastal scenery is said to have further boosted Mao’s confidence.
“Let’s go to the beach, where the tide matches the tide of socialist construction,” Mao told one of his guards, according to the book The Tracking Report on the Days in Beidaihe by Xu Yan, a professor of national strategy from the PLA National Defense University.
According to the book, Beidaihe attracted several hundred ranking officials that summer, and became thereafter the “summer camp” for top leaders to escape the stifling heat of Beijing.
At the time, China’s five top-level government bodies – the Central Committee of the CPC, the State Council, the National People’s Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (China’s political advisory body) and the Central Military Commission – carried out their administrative duties from Beidaihe every summer from July to August. The government assigned special areas for each of these bodies, with that for the CPC Central Committee and State Council located in the city’s quieter west side (from Xihaitan Road to the south of Lianfeng hill).
“Only top leaders [like Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Liu Shaoqi] were assigned special villas, which their family members could keep for three years after their deaths,” Sun Zhisheng told NewsChina.
It was in these villas that many important decisions were made, from the launch of the Anti-rightist Campaign in 1957 to the 1958 shelling of Jinmen (also known as Kinmen, an island off the Fujian coast controlled by the nationalist Kuomintang), from the launch of the Great Leap Forward to the People’s Commune system, beating the path that China traveled in the 1950s and early 1960s.
In 1971, Marshall Lin Biao, Mao’s designated successor, fled his Beidaihe villa to the nearby military airport after what the CPC maintains was a failed attempt to assassinate Mao, before finally perishing in a plane crash in Mongolia, casting yet more mystery over the resort.
Fall and Rise
By the time of Lin Biao’s death, the Beidaihe resort had been deserted for over five years, since a great many senior leaders and officials had fallen during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which Mao Zedong launched against what he called “capitalist roaders” and “Chinese Khrushchevs.” Mao himself was also absent from Beidaihe from 1965, with his last decision made at Beidaihe being to counter what he claimed was the rise of revisionism in China.
In 1979, the year that Deng Xiaoping initiated the policy of Reform and Opening-up, a headline story in the Party paper the People’s Daily claimed that the government had decided to transfer the Beidaihe sanatoriums to tourist use.
“It was strange that the news seemed to be a government decision, but nobody had ever received a formal government document [as was common practice],” Sun Zhisheng told NewsChina. “The only reply from the central government was that the news was equally authentic as an official document, and that the decision had been made by Deng Xiaoping himself.”
According to Sun, China at the time was in urgent need of cash to pay off its huge foreign debt, and the tourism industry was viewed a fast track to revenue. “[The luxurious villas] are like a gold mine,” a foreign expert reportedly told government-run Xinhua News Agency when visiting the government sanatoriums in Beidaihe at the time.
Following Deng’s decision, the government set up a new tourism company in Beidaihe and took over nearly 400 resort buildings plus other facilities such as bathing beaches and garden parks. Thanks to the attraction of these “treasure troves,” the company saw the number of visitors to Beidaihe rocket to 730,000 in 1979, including 6,800 foreigners.
The boom was not to last, however – as more and more old cadres and senior officials were politically rehabilitated, the demand for official summer sanatoriums in the balmy climes of Beidaihe became overwhelming.
In 1981, the Beidaihe Tourism Company had to return a portion of the resort buildings to the government to ease the shortage. Two years later, the central government convened a meeting on cracking down on crime in Beidaihe, marking the resumption of the central government’s summer sojourn.
By now, the number of resort buildings and sanatoriums in Beidaihe had risen to over 200 from 50 before 1980 – however, public access to most of these was denied. In the Xihaitan Road section, for example, a speed limit of 15 kilometers per hour was imposed throughout the year and the bathing beach for the leaders was separated from ordinary tourist beaches by a wire netting. The only leader who reached out to the public across the netting was Deng Xiaoping, who invited ordinary tourists to cross the “borderline” for a photo opportunity one summer day in 1984, winning him much media applause.
Today, with the Chinese public growing resentful of corruption, the spree of construction of official leisure facilities in Beidaihe is becoming a sore spot for ordinary people, many of whom believe that the government controls too much of the country’s resources, and is increasingly removed from ordinary people. This was seen as one of the major reasons why former Chinese president Hu Jintao put a stop to the Beidaihe decampment practice in 2003, the year that China was hit hard by the SARS epidemic.
Concerns about Beidaihe’s future after being disconnected from the political arena were soon dispelled later that year when the government invited a group of medical experts to the resort for a vacation, as a reward for their great contributions to the fight against SARS. This was a custom copied from the former Soviet Union to show the government’s care of those with special talents. According to media reports, the Chinese government has invited 13 batches, totaling more than 700 experts and academics, to the Beidaihe sanatoriums since 2001.
Analysts have noticed that the fields from which these experts come tend to coincide with the priority of the government’s agenda at the time. For example, after the government began promoting the slogan “science is the most productive” in 2004, it invited several dozen high-tech scientists to the Beidaihe resort. In 2006, while promoting the importance of rural issues, the honored guests were mainly agricultural experts.
“It is an extraordinarily high level of treatment, which I had never received before,” Zhao Zhengyi, a rural inventor who was awarded first prize in the national scientific and technological progress awards, told the media in 2012 when he and another 61 experts were hosted at an upscale Beidaihe sanatorium.
Government media have rarely reported on the leaders’ activities during their stay in Beidaihe since Hu Jintao abolished the yearly outing, so meetings between the top leaders and their advisers have become a signal that the top leaders are holding an “informal” conference in Beidaihe to discuss something crucial.
It was unsurprising, then, that when former politburo member Bo Xilai was detained on suspicion of corruption and the Chinese government approached a once-in-a-decade power transition last year, a New York Times report that an elderly relative of former Premier Zhou Enlai had been spotted at the Beidaihe resort caused widespread speculation among foreign media that the CPC was discussing candidates for the new Politburo before the Party’s 18th national congress scheduled for November 2012.
Although some analysts like Deng Yuwen, the former senior editor of Study Times, a publication affiliated with the Party School of the CPC Central Committee, predicted that the government might not hold the so-called “Beidaihe conference” this year due to new President Xi Jinping’s calls for frugality and clean government, the resort still came under the spotlight after Liu Yunshan, a standing member of the Politburo, met with over 60 experts and retired cadres in Beidaihe on August 5 and remained out of the public eye until August 15.
“Given the fact that the ‘disappearing’ politburo members have resurfaced together in Beijing, we can deduce that the CPC’s top leadership has ended its meeting in Beidaihe, and thus they have established the priorities of the Party Central Committee’s third plenary session,” read a report in the Singapore-based newspaper Lianhe Zaobao.
Even domestic media outlets like the Economic Observer cautiously implied that “the government [had] discussed some crucial issues, like the fight against corruption, in Hebei Province.”
An insider, who asked not to be named, told NewsChina that the local government in Beidaihe had been making preparations for the leaders’ arrival since June. “Since the ‘summer office’ system was abolished, a new custom has formed whereby central government leaders and some retired cadres stay in the Beidaihe retreat for their summer holidays or for recuperation,” he said.
While a summer-long Beidaihe conclave may be too extravagant for today’s political climate, the sleepy seaside town will likely remain the epicenter of every major political decision for the time being.
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Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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