HONG KONG — Have you ever wondered how China’s stone-faced, dead-eyed leaders set their policies? How much debate takes place, who is involved, and whether it ever gets heated? Do the nation’s economic, scientific, and creative experts get to bend their ears, at least to some degree?
These are questions that have plagued Sinophiles and China-watchers for decades. The decision-making and operational mechanics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are a black box, but it is known that the CCP has its summer retreats at Beidaihe, a seaside locale in Hebei Province that is 180 miles from the nation’s capital. There, at the beach, they set policy goals each year.
Shrouded in the strictest secrecy, there’s no way of knowing what exactly is on the agenda at the Beidaihe meetings. Think of them as China’s Bilderberg meetings, where people of power meet regularly but nobody can say why.
What’s known about Beidaihe can only be expressed in the most general terms, that political leaders meet with experts in economic, scientific, and social science fields to form the grand strategies that steer the nation’s growth and development. Those meetings are the rare occasions when honest data on China’s economy are laid out on the table, putting to rest the legend of China’s recurring 7 percent GDP growth.
Normally held in mid-August, if the Beidaihe summit is convened at any other time, it provokes rife speculation by China-watchers. In 2002, when the meetings took place in late July, the rumor was that Jiang Zemin, China’s political leader at the time, resisted retirement and the issue of succession had become, well, an issue.
This year, the Beidaihe summit started on August 3, a week earlier than is the norm. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the bump was due to China’s stock market meltdown, its economic cool down, and President Xi Jinping’s planned September visit to the United States.
With nothing to depend upon besides canned press releases that are put out after the summit, the Chinese population cares little about the contents of the CCP’s meetings. To the average man or woman on the street, Beidaihe is a popular beach resort, a location to get some unadulterated sunshine, and perhaps a spa treatment during the peak of summer.
With a cool, caressing ocean breeze and seafood galore, Beidaihe is a great spot for a respite, a nice escape from the megacities of Beijing and Tianjin, site of the recent massive explosion, which is only three hours away by car—as long as a couple million other vacationers don’t decide to pack their speedos or facekinis at the same time.
The CCP’s gatherings in Beidaihe are never formally announced, but the low-key act is contradicted when soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army appear on city streets and plainclothes police officers make their futile attempts to blend in. It becomes clear that intense, closed-door discussions are about to take place. Yet this is met with general indifference. For the people on the street, secret Chinese leadership meetings might as well look like the wildest imaginings of Bohemian Grove.
What takes place behind closed doors and in government villas isn’t part of their universe, and is met with a collective shrug. Expectations and street gossip still have their place; this year, people were worried about their decapitated stock portfolios, the slow economy, and the drama in the manhunt for corrupt CCP officials. Discussions and decisions made by China’s leaders, whose collective wealth is unimaginable for the average Chinese citizen, mean little. Behind their robotic façade, Chinese leaders simply don’t see themselves as answerable to the general public.
Chinese nationals are accustomed to being kept out of the loop, yet it is undeniable that these secret meetings have a big impact on Chinese life. It is almost surely that one of China’s most profound traits—its stalwart anti-Japan stance, or at least the propaganda that whips it up—was forged in meetings like those in Beidaihe.
Last year, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of two new public holidays that are clearly meant to jab Japan in her ribs. The first is on September 3, and it has an official name: The 70th anniversary of Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese War and the World Anti-Fascist War Victory Commemoration Day. (Within that mouthful, by “World Anti-Fascist War,” the CCP means World War II.) September 3 will be paired with a massive military parade to commemorate victory over Japan, a pointed show of force and costly way for the CCP to say they are not invested in improving relations with Tokyo. The second anti-Japan holiday falls on December 13, marking the Japanese takeover of Nanjing and the Japanese Imperial Army’s subsequent rape and massacre of 300,000 Chinese nationals.
But when Chinese tourists have Japanese digital cameras dangling from their necks, when Chinese millennials shop in Muji and watch anime, when Chinese men have more than a mere fondness for Japanese porn, then the party’s message seems decoupled from the reality of their own nation. Creating a bogeyman in Japan may stir the party’s most ardent followers into a mad fervor, but the greater public isn’t buying into the CCP’s acidic take on blind nationalism.
The People’s Republic of China is at the height of its power, with the swagger of a major global player whose fate is interlocked with the world economy. The CCP understands that its legitimacy is tied up with its performance. Managing 1.4 billion people is no small task; decades of economic moonshots have kept the public happy, and hence kept the CCP in power. But recent events—stock busts, Tianjin’s explosions, revelations about the nation’s environmental devastation and how deadly the air is in China, as well as publicized cases of nepotism by high profile CCP officials—have turned public sentiment hostile. Wealthy Chinese are choosing to leave the country. Those who can’t afford the move dream about it, or work hard so their children can study abroad.
Surely, next year’s Beidaihe summit will have some intense discussions, fueling the grand schemes that will project Chinese geopolitical power for years to come. But we won’t hear about those plans, and that’s exactly how the CCP wants it.