Clutching a wooden cane and aided by an entourage of young people, the old man in a black silk shirt and matching shorts hobbled up the stairs to Kiessling, a decades-old Austrian restaurant not far from the teeming beaches of the seaside resort of Beidaihe, China. He sat on the balcony and ordered ice cream. It was the best in town, he told his companions. At least it had been in his youth.
“This man is a relative of Zhou Enlai (周恩來),” the restaurant manager said in a low voice to some foreign diners at a nearby table, referring to the revered former premier of China in the Mao Zedong (毛澤東) era. “He’s come here before. He stays in the neighborhood where the leaders live.”
In any other city, even Beijing, it would be unusual to casually run into a relative of Zhou, but it is midsummer in Beidaihe, which means one thing: Chinese Communist Party elders and their families are congregating here, about 280km east of Beijing, to swim and dine and gossip — and to shape the future of the world’s most populous nation.
It is palace intrigue by the sea. In their guarded villas, current and past leaders will negotiate to try to place allies in the 25-member politburo and its elite standing committee, at the top of the party hierarchy. The selections will be announced at the 18th Party Congress this fall in Beijing, heralding what is expected to be only the second orderly leadership transition in more than 60 years of communist rule.
“This is where the factional struggles are settled and the decisions are made,” said one resident, surnamed Li, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of Chinese politics. “At the meetings in the fall, everyone just raises their hands.”
Beidaihe is a Chinese combination of the Jersey Shore and Martha’s Vineyard, with a pinch of red fervor: The hilly streets and public beaches are packed with shirtless Russians and Chinese families, while the party elites remain hidden in their villas and on their private patches of sand. A clock tower near Kiessling chimes The East is Red, a classic Mao anthem.
The security presence has surged in recent weeks. Police officers in light blue uniforms patrol on Suzuki motorcycles and stand on street corners watching for jaywalkers. They have set up a checkpoint on the main road leading into town.
The informal talks are expected to start late this month and run into next month, continuing a tradition that went into partial eclipse after Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤), took over from Jiang Zemin (江澤民) in 2002, and ordered party and government offices to stop more formal operations from gravitating to the beachside during the summer palaver.
However, Jiang reportedly chafed at that and continued hobnobbing here with his allies. There was a notable conclave in 2007 that Hu attended, to pave the way for the 17th Party Congress, according to scholars and a US Department of State cable disclosed by WikiLeaks.
In any case, politicking is inevitable when party elders show up to escape the stifling heat and pollution of Beijing.
Westerners began building up Bei-daihe as a summer retreat in the late 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty waned. When the People’s Liberation Army entered in 1948, the resort had 719 villas, according to the China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper.