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Hu Decides to Stay Out of the Water

The Chinese president cancels an annual retreat at a beach resort. Some cite the rivalry with his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

August 03, 2003|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — Mao Tse-tung started the tradition of an annual summer retreat for China's Communist leaders, and for years the nation's most powerful officials have come each August to the Beidaihe resort along northern China's Bohai Sea.

Mao showed a commanding chop as he swam in front of his photographer, and Deng Xiaoping once dived into the sea in an apparent effort to scotch rumors about his poor health.

But this year, China's new leader, President Hu Jintao, seems intent on projecting a different sort of image: He is not going to the beach.

In what is officially cast as a money-saving move but is also widely seen as an intriguing public-relations gesture, state newspapers have reported that the Beidaihe retreat is being called off this year.

The reports are a bit murky. They note that some older top party officials may still visit the resort for "convalescence," leading some observers to detect another possible motive at work. They say Hu, who is still trying to cement control over the government in the face of a rivalry with his elder predecessor, Jiang Zemin, might prefer to avoid the sort of surreptitious machinations that have occasionally been a feature of the Beidaihe retreat.

"It's not simply for image; it could have substantial policy significance," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.

Jiang, 76, stepped down as president but remained head of the Central Military Commission, which runs the army, and he has several allies who are also seen as potential rivals to Hu.

"At Beidaihe, the informal setting gives more influence to the elders than is generally the case in the more formal policy setting of Beijing," Yang said. "I think it allows him to distance himself a bit from Jiang."

That may all be true, or it may just be that the 60-year-old Hu doesn't like going to the beach all that much, or perhaps is not a fan of the dances and karaoke sessions that reportedly occur around the Beidaihe bungalows.

Among Chinese, Hu is known as something of a technocrat and workaholic, and, so far anyway, he seems to have made little attempt to show a lighter side to the public.

Some of the leaders may go to the beach anyway for a private vacation. But, especially with public anger still fresh over the government's initial handling of the SARS outbreak earlier this year, Hu and his top aides may simply have concluded that an official retreat at the beach might not go over so well.

On state-run television, Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao, have been shown hard at work doing serious things, such as opening hospitals or visiting flood-damaged areas. In another gesture seen as trying to bolster a man-of-the-people image, Hu has ordered a dramatic scaling-down of the ornate ceremonies that have often marked the arrivals and departures of China's leaders as they move about the country or go overseas.

Whether the cancellation will be permanent is unclear. The Web site of the People's Daily newspaper only announced there would be no meeting this year. Other newspapers have issued similar reports. A spokesman for the state council's information office in Beijing said he had seen the reports but could provide no other information.

As word has filtered out that leaders were scrapping the retreat this summer, the gesture seems to have drawn some appreciation among Beijingers coping with the sweltering weather here, well inland from the cool breezes of Beidaihe.

"I think ordinary people will appreciate it. It looks like they're trying to save some money and be very serious about how they run the country," said Ma Xiaomeng, 20, a computer science student.

But many seemed unfazed by the news.

"What difference does it make if the man goes to the beach? He's entitled to it," said Li Yang, 49, a housewife. "In America, President Bush seems to be at that ranch of his a lot of the time. I'm sure they're still working, wherever they are."

And Gao Yenshang, 53, a barber, waved his scissors in the air in a what-does-it-matter gesture.

"Beijing, Beidaihe -- they're both OK," he said. "They could meet in Disneyland for all I care. What matters is the kinds of decisions they make for the people."

The Beidaihe retreat does have a long and intrigue-filled history, along with enduring images of Mao and other leaders swimming in the surf.

Mao started coming in the 1950s to the resort, which was developed in the early years of the 20th century for Western merchants and missionaries in China. Beidaihe was not the only place where Mao swam; perhaps his most famous dives were into the Yangtze River -- including one in 1966, an event that some historians mark as the starting point of the Cultural Revolution.

Over the years, reports sometimes filtered out about maneuvering and infighting at Beidaihe. In 1971, Lin Biao, Mao's heir apparent, died in a plane crash after taking off from Beidaihe, setting off rampant speculation that he had been killed by rivals for power.

And last summer, there were reports that leadership succession was the main topic, preceding Hu's ascent to power.

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