A day after Chinese state media reported that key government figures were in the beach resort town of Beidaihe welcoming researchers and scholars, state media ran an article noting that the annual unofficial government meeting at Beidaihe was likely canceled. The mixed messages instantly elicited questions among China watchers abroad, raising speculation that the cancellation was related to the anti-corruption campaign, was a sign of internal political troubles, or was just anomalous but not entirely out of the ordinary. (After all, former President Hu Jintao canceled the meeting in 2003, and some Chinese media have suggested that it really hasn’t been important since then.)
The annual gathering at Beidaihe draws intense speculation in China and abroad each year. Started in the 1950s under Mao Zedong, the meetings were an opportunity for central and local Party officials and Party elders to gather in an informal setting, beat the summer heat and hash out critical government policies. Debates over key initiatives, questions concerning the efficacy of policies, and horse trading over future personnel decisions were all fair game at Beidaihe. None of this was official, and state media rarely mentioned the meetings, much less speculated on them.
Hu Jintao’s 2003 cancellation of Beidaihe, then, was anomalous in its clear coverage — but the cancellation was politically motivated. Hu wanted to demonstrate a new, more transparent and less wasteful government apparatus. The meeting resumed, unofficially of course, the next year. Despite the desire by Hu and other members of the Party to show more openness in decision-making, the venue was too engrained in Party politics and too valuable as a place to deal with sensitive issues that needed broad consensus to sort out.
From Chinese media coverage, it is unclear if Beidaihe is canceled this year or just different, or if it is just trying to be quieter amid the rampant outside speculation over all of the issues the Chinese government needs to deal with — the Shanghai stock market slump, the South China Sea, Japanese normalization and the upcoming visit by President Xi Jinping to Washington, among other things. Whether the meeting was completely canceled or just symbolically canceled, the public reporting by Chinese state media is intended to highlight the different way of government under Xi — that decisions are made in Beijing, in formal processes, and no longer in dark smoke-filled rooms or around wicker seaside tables.
But over the past several years, the Beidaihe conference has waned in significance. The process of cadre selection for promotion has already become more standardized and open; the old trading among differing interest groups and Party elders for continued influence and favors is not gone, but merit elements and standardized bureaucratic systems are playing a more regularized role. Further, Xi has been centralizing power, creating smaller, more focused groups of advisers where sensitive and difficult discussions and decisions can be shaped. A large, expensive beach party for the Communist Party fits neither within this paradigm nor within the very public demands and pledges by the government that Party and government officials will be more frugal and less ostentatious in the future.
Perhaps most interesting about the potential cancellation is the publicity it is receiving and the open discussion in Chinese state media. The message Beijing is sending, domestically and abroad, is that the old system — the Maoist personality system, the Dengist compromise system — is being replaced. Xi is establishing a new structure of government debate and decision-making, one that is not necessarily at the mercy of consultations with long-retired officials, nor susceptible (ideally) to the inconclusiveness and indecisiveness of the consensus model. Such changes are not simple; old habits die hard, and the interests of the former officials remain. Perhaps in a year we will see if Xi, like his predecessor Hu, decides that canceling the Party beach party is just too disruptive to the balance of internal power, or if he has truly overcome an aspect of Chinese government inertia, and real changes in the internal decision-making apparatus and methodology are coming.