China's Leaders Head to the Beach

Selecting the Next Standing Committee in Beidaihe

As the summer comes to an end, Chinese leaders are preparing for a once-in-a-decade turnover in leadership. But unlike past transitions, this time around, there are no revolutionary-credentialed party elders to mediate among the party's squabbling cliques. This means the jockeying for powerful positions in the new Politburo's lineup could be more combative, as rival kingpins push aggressively for their favorites. Coming off their annual summer provincial inspection tours, the chief powerbrokers of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will soon be setting off for their summer retreat at the seaside resort town of Beidaihe where the process will begin in earnest.

About 175 miles east of Beijing, Beidaihe is always more about backroom politics than determining policy. Since the time of Mao Zedong, the resort has served as a refuge where political bosses from around the country can come together quietly to build alliances, or, when necessary, go head to head away from the unyielding demands of unity in the public eye. The resort's informal setting, requiring leaders to leave the titles and trappings of Beijing behind, also creates a more level playing field for the wide cast of party magnates -- especially those who are officially retired but still wield substantial influence. As such, the setting rewards those most skilled at backstage political maneuvering, sometimes resulting in surprising realignments in the leadership's balance of power. In fact, President Hu Jintao, who was uncomfortable with the place because its opaque deal-making clashed with his emphasis on transparency and "inner-party democracy," tried to ban the gathering early in his tenure. But the allure of handshakes near the seashore is so ingrained in the CCP's political culture that his campaign went nowhere.

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