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China's Elite Has a Place in the Sun

Asia: Gathering at a coastal resort each year, Communist Party elders mix play with politics.


BEIDAIHE, China — This seaside retreat from Beijing's scorching summers looks about as refreshing as a steaming pot of dumpling soup. So many revelers are frolicking on the waterfront, there's hardly a glimpse of sand or sea.

Just down the road, however, off-limits signs and out-of-town police officers prevent the bathing-suit-clad masses from spilling over to pristine stretches of fancy villas and deserted beaches.

This is the storied resort town where politics with Chinese characteristics ritually play out year after year as Communist Party elders swim and play poker in hideaways while deciding on the future leaders of the most populous nation on Earth.

Ordinary Chinese seem resigned to the fact that they have no influence over the selection of their next ruler. As they focus instead on cooling off, the temperature is rising in one of the hottest political guessing games in recent memory.

Beijing is just weeks away from the 16th Communist Party Congress, the official platform to introduce the new chain of command that is presumably assembled here.

Every summer between July and August, the leaders come to Beidaihe and step back into China's socialist past. The resort, about 170 miles east of Beijing, becomes a giant rest-and-recreation center that rewards the party elite and select model workers with junkets.

A 48-year-old former soldier said that when he was a kid, he climbed over a wall and saw Chairman Mao riding his horse. He also saw another top leader, Gen. Zhu De, stroll around town with only one bodyguard.

These days, the only thing he can see are roadblocks and armies of cops sealing off traffic as VIP motorcades zip on to seclusion.

Very few locals can tell you why their Beijing visitors might be on edge this year.

The succession protocol calls for President Jiang Zemin, 75, to step down and make way for Vice President Hu Jintao. He would eventually take over all Jiang's posts--president, general secretary of the Communist Party and military chief.

Parliament Chairman Li Peng, 72, and Premier Zhu Rongji, 73, also are expected to retire. Front-runners for their jobs are Li Ruihuan, a member of the Politburo's standing committee, and Vice Premier Wen Jiabao.

If, however, Jiang rallies support here at the beach--as he is expected to try to do--and clings to power, observers say it could trigger a destructive power struggle threatening the country's cherished social stability and the Communist Party's legitimacy.

The less dire scenario suggests that the new hierarchy is a fait accompli. Aside from some mid-level positions still being hashed out, the system is institutionalized enough to guarantee a predictable outcome.

"Jiang's departure from office is a done deal," said Andrew Nathan, a Columbia University professor and longtime China observer. To say Jiang wants to stay on is unthinkable, he said. "It would be a terrible mess."

Heir apparent Hu was handpicked by the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. The 59-year-old vice president has been groomed for the top job for a good part of the last decade. Absent a national or international crisis, some observers say, Jiang's continued presence would give the impression that things are out of control.

Like his predecessor, Deng, Jiang would most likely hang on to the powerful military chief post for a transition period. This is a function less of a power struggle than logistics, observers say. Instead of an abrupt change in leadership, Hu will ease into his new jobs in stages, after a series of party and state meetings.

Other obstacles standing in Jiang's way, if he wishes to remain in charge, include fairness to other elder statesmen who also don't want to leave. Particularly Li, the current second in command. The leadership would have to create another job for him so as not to upset the rest of the lineup.

A more important priority for Jiang, observers say, should be cementing his legacy and continuing to wield influence after retirement.

The Chinese president has already unleashed a propaganda whirlwind around his theory of the "Three Represents," an awkward moniker for Jiang's controversial call for the party to represent not only the proletariat but also entrepreneurs.

Other analysts caution, however, that in Chinese politics, anything is possible.

"I can guess what the outcome will be and someone else can guess a different outcome, but the important thing is, both of us are guessing," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a former advisor to the Clinton administration now teaching at the University of Michigan. Beidaihe "is a very dynamic environment where a lot can occur. It is not possible to say with any confidence what the outcome of these meetings will be. If you could, these meetings wouldn't need to occur."

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