Beside The Seaside, Beyond The Grave

Mystery surrounds this year’s annual Beihaide meeting. Mystery surrounds every Beihaide meeting. It is a secretive, closed-door gathering of past and present senior officials who turn up at the salubrious Hebei seaside resort around August 10 each year.

There are unconfirmed reports that this year’s meeting was cancelled or that it was held early, ostensibly to accommodate preparations for President Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington next month. Most likely it has been scaled back and downplayed in importance this year.

The traditional significance of the meeting is that it allows the leaders of the factions and interest groups within the Party informally to discuss policy in a way that both ensures collective buy-in and brokers the constraints on the actions of both the top leadership and those not supporting their policies.

Beihaide meetings can bring final consensus to thorny policy questions. The ending of the one-child policy followed a Beihaide meeting and, our man on the seashore assures us, a lot of the questions about the public face of dealing with the disgraced Bo Xilai were fixed there.

This year’s agenda, as far as anyone knows, was meant to include approval of the draft 13th five-year plan. That would already have been agreed in outline by the Politburo but the Beihaide meeting would set the tone for the priorities and pace of implementation that will be contained in the final draft to be presented to the Party Congress plenum in October for rubber-stamping.

Similarly, discussions would likely be held on how to deal with the economic slowdown, reforming state-owned enterprises (and their embedded vested interests), and how far  Xi’s crackdown on corruption should be allowed to run in the current economic circumstances.

However, most critically, Beihaide has provided an effective forum for former leaders to continue exerting power and influence long after they have retired from office. Former President Jiang Zemin would be a prime example, and one who the very pinnacle of official mouthpieces, the People’s Daily, obliquely suggested should stay retired from active politics.

It is an open secret that Xi has found Jiang an obstacle to his extension of control over every aspect of the party, government, and state. Xi is said to be annoyed that the excesses of Jiang’s drive for untrammeled economic growth when he was president are having to be cleaned up on his watch, from corruption and cronyism to environmental degradation. It is no accident that many of the biggest tigers snared by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign have connections to the Jiang faction.

Bringing down a former president would be a reach too far, even for Xi, who may also be betting that time will do the job for him. Jiang is 88, and indeed rumoured on more than one occasion to have died.

Much of the political turmoil that seems to be churning at the top of Chinese politics despite the official narrative of Xi’s consolidated grip on power may best be explained by Jiang trying to secure the legacy of his Shanghai faction come the day when he has to wield his influence not from beside the seaside but from beyond the grave.

The loyal Politburo members Jiang had left in place after he left office in 2002 were certainly an impediment to scaling back of the state-owned-enterprise-led model of infrastructure investment when Xi’s predecessors, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, first tried. Their influence has since waned and Xi has sought to diminish it further. The question is whether it will survive at all once Jiang is gone.

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