In China, an Informal Conference Gains Importance

5 MINS READMay 29, 2012 | 10:05 GMT
A beach in Beidaihe, China
Guang Niu/Getty Images

The 18th National Conference of the Communist Party of China (CPC), which convenes sometime in the second half of 2012, will draw the world's attention as the Party makes a host of key arrangements for the country's future leadership. In the meantime, Party officials are planning a series of meetings to prepare for the main event. The Bo Xilai saga made the CPC's political infighting more visible than ever, and Beijing needs the conference to run smoothly even though it is largely symbolic. Meetings held beforehand to make arrangements and take care of preparatory work are crucial to the CPC and to others interested in gauging the political elites' priorities. The Beidaihe conference is one such meeting.

Despite its low public visibility, the informal Beidaihe conference is one of the most important meetings for observers of Chinese politics aiming to assess the country's political environment and upcoming political appointments. The Beidaihe conference has grown less prominent in the past decade due in part to China's evolving political leadership and more institutionalized personnel selection process. However, since the Bo scandal and the resulting struggles within the Party could have increased the need for backroom compromises and debates, the upcoming Beidaihe conference may be an important venue this year for the CPC elite to deliberate personnel arrangements.

The Beidaihe conference became a tradition during Mao Zedong's era, when senior CPC leaders from the central government and local governments would gather with other Party elders and founders, typically in July or August, at a beach resort in Beidaihe to escape the summer heat. The meeting occurred nearly every year and evolved into a private, informal venue for discussing critical state issues and strategies.

Although official news outlets rarely mention the Beidaihe conference, it has been one of the most important recurring gatherings of CPC leadership since 1954, despite occasional politically motivated suspensions. For example, China's 1958 steel and iron campaign, which spurred a shift in the country's economic focus from rural areas to the industrial sector and essentially began the Great Leap Forward and People's Commune movement, began at Beidaihe.

Aside from its secretive nature, Beidaihe is unique in that it provides a critical setting for deliberating appointments among the CPC's most senior politicians. This is particularly important just before a CPC conference, at which the leadership transitions occur. Because of the informality of the Beidaihe meetings, political competition and power struggles are thought to be the most contentious during these events.

Beidaihe is also where powerful politicians, particularly CPC elders who are not included in formal Party meetings, can exercise the most influence. Indeed, during his rule and throughout his retirement, former leader Deng Xiaoping used the Beidaihe conference as a venue to influence the appointments of the highest-level politicians. This further strengthened China's so-called elder politics — the policy of allowing Party founders and other elders to influence Party decisions and continue their political legacies.

Beidaihe's Waning Influence

Because there is no fixed agenda or procedure for the Beidaihe conference, it is hard to track the meeting through institutional channels. However, trends in the CPC's personnel selections over the past few years indicate that the Beidaihe meeting has become less important. First, the Party's selection process for top-level officials has become more institutionalized. Second, the influence of elder politics in the CPC's appointment process and political agenda has waned.

Previously, the CPC's leadership transition was subject to secret negotiations and compromises, so the Beidaihe conference was an ideal venue for discussions on important appointments. In the past few years, however, the Party has tried to shift away from secrecy and toward greater transparency. For example, leading officials within the Politburo Standing Committee, including Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, went through some kind of competitive election before the CPC's 17th National Conference. Although the election was largely symbolic, since the Party's decision had already been made, it allowed the Party to avoid the possibility that the least-capable candidate would be appointed based solely on connections to a few influential politicians. Since the CPC's 15th or 16th National Conference, candidates for Politburo or Central Committee posts have gone through an election process among ministerial-level politicians. Although the Party's choices for key Politburo or Central Committee positions were not changed by such elections, the process kept some powerful politicians from positions they were widely anticipated to take.

In addition to the CPC's efforts to establish greater transparency, the influence of elder politics — a tradition inherent in the Beidaihe conference since Deng's time — is waning. Deng's concept of elder politics rested on the model of a government centralized under one powerful ruler influenced by the legacy of the CPC founders. However, as these elders have aged and begun dying, the influence of Party founders has diminished. Additionally, individuals no longer dominate the Party's personnel arrangements; as China shifted away from the era of the autocrat, a balance of different factions took a larger role in determining appointments. 

In part to undermine elder politics, Chinese President Hu Jintao abandoned the Beidaihe conference in 2002, although it resumed ahead of the CPC's 17th National Conference in 2007 and was held again in 2011. While former Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other Party elders might attempt to retain their influence on appointments during the upcoming Beidaihe conference, the meeting's importance as a venue for elder politics is diminishing.

Is Beidaihe Re-Emerging?

Bo's controversial case and the subsequent infighting have made Beijing's inner political struggles more public than ever and have shaken the Party's balance of power. This means Beijing will have to tread carefully if it wants to demonstrate a sense of unity ahead of the upcoming 18th National Conference. This will raise the prominence of secret meetings such as Beidaihe, where officials can work out personnel arrangements ahead of time.

The intimations from various rumor mills indicate that Beijing is far from reaching a consensus on a number of issues, ranging from Bo's case to the timing of the 18th National Conference. The connections and factional infighting behind Bo's case would have greatly complicated the highest personnel appointments and will require intense compromising in backroom talks to rebalance power and restore a unified front. Beidaihe will provide a good venue for these developments and give Party officials a chance to work through complex issues before the upcoming national conference.

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