CCP’s mysterious summer retreat in Beidaihe: Teeing up appointments ahead of 20th Party Congress

Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu notes that it is “Beidaihe time” in China, as the Chinese Communist Party leaders head to the resort town of Beidaihe in Hebei province for an informal summer retreat of sorts. Apart from discussing China’s external environment vis-à-vis the US and others, a hot topic will be the leadership appointments ahead of the 20th Party Congress in 2022.
Mao Zedong (left) and Zhou Enlai (center) chat on Beidaihe beach in 1954. (Wikimedia)
Mao Zedong (left) and Zhou Enlai (center) chat on Beidaihe beach in 1954. (Wikimedia)

Going into August, foreign journalists in Beijing are starting to talk about Beidaihe again, as the signs suggest that the Chinese leaders have entered “Beidaihe time”.

Beidaihe in Qinhuangdao, Hebei province, was previously China’s “summer capital”. Nearly every summer from 1953 to 1965, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) held its meeting there. This was suspended when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, but resumed in 1984 until early this century.

As the summer capital, many major policy decisions were made in Beidaihe. In particular, this was where senior leaders often discussed key appointments and political reports ahead of the CCP’s National Congress every five years. Thus, Beidaihe has always been an important window into China’s political direction.

In 2003, the CCP central committee decided to do away with the practice of working at Beidaihe in the summer, and the place lost some of its political shine. However, until today, the current and former leaders still go to Beidaihe for a summer break.

This photo taken in August 2020 shows Beidaihe, where CCP members gather every summer for a break and informal meetings. (SPH)

China’s official media seldom reveal news of senior leaders in Beidaihe, which also adds a veil of mystery to Beidaihe time. Apart from grapevine news from some people in the know, international media and media outside of China generally can only get an indirect glimpse of what goes on in Beidaihe based on other snippets revealed by official media.

Where the trail of breadcrumbs lead

On 30 July, Xinhua released news that the Politburo has called a meeting to plan for economic efforts in the second half of the year. By then, seven politburo standing committee members had not been seen in public or appeared in state media reports for days, which was a sign of Beidaihe time.

Also, each year in early August, official media reports usually include a piece of news that indirectly confirms a “leisure gathering” in Beidaihe, where CCP senior leaders meet up with various experts taking a summer break in Beidaihe. However, perhaps due to the pandemic, last year the authorities did not invite experts to take a break in Beidaihe. And with the Covid-19 Delta variant sparking a fresh outbreak in China, it is still not known whether arrangements will be made this year.

But looking at the heightened security in Beidaihe recently, it is likely that China’s senior leaders will still be gathering there.

According to Hebei Daily, Hebei party secretary Wang Dongfeng was in Qinhuangdao on 30 July, inspecting transport checkpoints and calling for strict enforcement of everyday pandemic control measures, and to “create a top-rate, safe environment”.

With Hebei’s top person showing up in Qinhuangdao at this time to personally oversee pandemic and security measures, chances are it is to make sure of sufficient preparations for Beidaihe time.

Next autumn, the CCP will hold its 20th Party Congress, with a change in senior leadership. Looking at age alone, going by the unwritten rule of retiring at 68, about 40% of the current 25 politburo members will hit retirement age by then.

Commuters exiting Qinhuangdao train station following a security check, August 2020. (SPH)

While formal meetings are no longer held in Beidaihe, senior leaders taking a break there will still informally exchange views on the country’s direction, key appointments, and so on. Within the CCP, such retreat sessions called wuxuhui (务虚会, meetings to discuss ideas and ideologies) are an effective platform to coordinate positions and interests, speak their minds and exchange views, to avoid differences at the formal meeting, which would affect unity.

Issues on the informal agenda

So, what are the possible topics of focus at this year’s Beidaihe time?

One of the key focal points of the Beidaihe gathering is how current and former leaders with influence on China's political arena show their stand on key appointments and plan for new arrangements, and this is especially so for this year.

Next autumn, the CCP will hold its 20th Party Congress, with a change in senior leadership. Looking at age alone, going by the unwritten rule of retiring at 68, about 40% of the current 25 politburo members will hit retirement age by then.

Traditionally, the senior appointments for the 20th Party Congress will be submitted between spring and summer next year, and views will be sought within the party. However, appointments need to be planned in advance, and with just about a year to go before the 20th National Party, it is possible that this year’s Beidaihe gathering will include initial discussions on appointments for that session.

Apart from appointments, China’s plans for the future amid a tough external situation will probably also be a focus of Beidaihe time this year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and other leaders arrive for the event marking the 100th founding anniversary of the Communist Party of China, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 July 2021. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

The South China Morning Post recently quoted a person familiar with China’s foreign policy saying that with Washington getting firmer on its strategy with China, Beijing is conducting a strategic review on how to define its relationship with the US. It is expected to abandon the “new type of great power relations” model which downplays the deep differences between the two countries, and acknowledge their competitive relationship instead.

On 26 July, China and the US went head to head at their meeting in Tianjin, showing that China’s foreign strategy with the US is changing. How Beijing will set new guidelines for its US policy, how far it will go in competing and keep a grasp on the situation, how it will respond to US pressure and containment and handle the risks of a tougher and more complex external environment — these will probably be discussed at Beidaihe.

Of course, China’s domestic affairs will definitely be of continued interest to China’s leaders. For instance, how 1.4 billion people are going to live with the coronavirus amid resurgent outbreaks; and how the authorities will step up regulation of the disorderly expansion of capital into various sectors such as the internet, education, and entertainment — which has sparked social conflict — but without damaging the market environment.

Over the next two weeks, Beidaihe will probably be airtight. And given the CCP’s extreme emphasis on political discipline and rules, there will probably be little news from the grapevine. However, Beidaihe time each summer continues to fill people with curiosity and speculation.

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