As holidaymakers crowded beaches at the Chinese seaside resort of Beidaihe, a heightened security presence was the only sign that China’s most senior leaders had gathered for their annual talks.
A summer trip to Beidaihe has been part of the Chinese political calendar since the era of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and this year’s takes place ahead of a handover of power that will set the country’s course for the next decade.
The Beidaihe talks are never officially acknowledged, but state media recently reported that several top leaders were visiting the town, 285km from Beijing.
Analysts say the secretive, month-long discussions are especially important this summer as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chiefs prepare to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders in the autumn.
They are also dealing with the fall-out from one of the worst scandals to hit the party in decades — the downfall of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), an ambitious but divisive politician whose wife confessed in court to murdering a British businessman.
Beidaihe residents said security was unusually tight, with roads closed and police performing spot-checks on people entering the town.
However, for Chinese tourists flocking to the resort’s public beaches, discussions centered around the best way to stay afloat in the dull-grey waters of the Bohai Sea: inflatable dolphin or shark?
“The talks are for government officials, they have nothing to do with us ordinary people,” said one woman, surnamed Meng, as she squeezed into a yellow inflatable ring. “We’re just here to have fun.”
Beidaihe gives politicians a rare chance to meet informally to engage in “lobbying for promotions, appointments and the approval of policies,” according to Joseph Cheng (鄭宇碩), who lectures on Chinese politics at Hong Kong’s City University.
“It started as just a holiday destination for China’s top leaders,” he added, “but it became a place where important decisions were made.”
This year’s discussions will help determine who gains entry to the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group of leaders who effectively run China, when seven of its nine members stand down this year.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) is expected to succeed the outgoing President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as the head of the committee before taking over as head of state next year, while Vice Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) is set to take the second highest-ranked position of premier.
Analysts say other vice premiers, Wang Qishan (王岐山) and Li Yuanqiao (李源潮), who runs the department that approves party appointments, are all but certain to join the committee.
Among those vying for one of the remaining places are Wang Yang (汪洋), the reformist party head of China’s southern manufacturing powerhouse Guangdong, and Shanghai leader Yu Zhengsheng (俞正聲).
Competition is fierce, with speculation that the number of places on the Standing Committee — which can vary in size — will be reduced to seven from nine this time around.
Some experts believe the bargaining over positions may be tied to the fate of Bo, currently under investigation for “violating party discipline” as his wife, Gu Kailai (谷開來), awaits the outcome of her murder trial.
Bo’s political career is over, but it remains unclear whether he will face criminal charges relating to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, which four police officers are charged with trying to cover up.