Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

A Guide to the Secretive Resort Meeting for China's Political Elite

  • Communist Party leaders to meet in seaside town of Beidaihe
  • New leaders to be revealed at party congress later this year

Sometime in the next few days, President Xi Jinping will probably decamp to a seaside resort on China’s northeastern coast for a key Communist Party conclave before a twice-a-decade leadership shuffle.

The annual meeting in Beidaihe, a summer retreat for China’s most powerful leaders since the 1950s, is one of the last chances for party elders to weigh in on the lineup to rule the country for the next five years. The names will be revealed at the 19th Party Congress, which is likely to take place in October or November.

The stakes are high for Xi. Already the most powerful Chinese leader since the 1990s, he must assemble a team that can push through tough economic and military reforms at a time of slowing growth and increased geopolitical tensions. Any discord threatens to undermine those efforts and raise risks in the world’s second-biggest economy.

Up for grabs at the party congress are nearly half of the 25 spots in the ruling Politburo, including 5 out of 7 on its supreme Standing Committee -- if current informal retirement rules hold. China watchers are waiting to see if Xi will signal that he’s appointed a successor, a move that could end a debate over whether he’ll seek to extend his tenure beyond 2022.

‘Strong Position’

The Beidaihe tradition dates back to the era of Mao Zedong, with the first retreat held in 1954. State media reports show that important policy and personnel decisions have been made at the resort, including Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” and the leadership lineup for the 15th Party Congress in 1997. While former President Hu Jintao briefly abolished the retreat in 2003 to save money, it gradually came back without any official announcement.

Little is known about what actually goes on in Beidaihe. It’s not clear how many people attend, what’s on the agenda or when it ends. In past years, news about the meeting trickled out days or even weeks afterward.

Authorities don’t formally announce the start date: The meeting is presumed to begin once the itineraries of Standing Committee members disappear from state broadcaster CCTV’s 7 p.m. newscast. Last night’s program didn’t mention any activities of the current seven members.

“Xi is entering Beidaihe in a very strong position,” said Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California and author of the 2016 book "China’s Crony Capitalism: The Dynamics of Regime Decay." “He has a very good hand of cards, but this doesn’t mean he can bulldoze or steamroll over his colleagues. In other words, he cannot just produce a list of candidates and say: sign your names."

With Xi elevated to the title of the party’s “core leader” in late 2016, other once-influential officials have seen their influence wane. The Communist Youth League, Hu’s power base, underwent structural changes after Xi called it “autocratic” in 2015. Qin Yizhi, the group’s current leader, is not on the delegate list for this year’s party congress.

‘Destructive Infighting’

Scores of senior officials have fallen in Xi’s sweeping anti-graft campaign, including former security czar Zhou Yongkang. Last month, China confirmed an investigation into Sun Zhengcai, the former Communist Party chief of Chongqing. His age and rank had positioned him as a candidate for the Standing Committee, which could have set him up for a top post after 2022.

“The real point of Beidaihe is to loop in the elders so that they can chip in on the current discussions -- it’s essentially a symbol of old-man politics,” said Deng Yuwen, a public affairs commentator in Beijing and former deputy editor of the Study Times, a party journal. “What Xi Jinping has shown is that he’ll make certain decisions with or without Beidaihe, with or without consulting the elders.”

That carries certain risks given the party’s tradition of collective leadership. If Xi fails to appoint successors for both himself and Premier Li Keqiang at the party congress, he could generate broad resistance against his reform agenda, according to Evan Medeiros, Asia managing director at the Eurasia Group and former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council.

“Such a move by Xi could, if successful, eliminate all the guide rails used to navigate the informal world of leadership succession in China and produce a world in which such transitions become a free-for-all,” Medeiros wrote in a July 30 note. “This would open the CCP to destructive infighting, which is why so many current and former leaders would oppose it.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai

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