Life's no beach for China's leaders
By Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIDAIHE, China - The summer capital of China's political intrigue is taking a break from the years of intense infighting and maneuvering that Chinese communist leaders used to engage in while hidden in secluded villas there.

Beidaihe - a seaside resort about a two hours' train ride north of the capital - has surrendered its heavily guarded beaches to throngs of Russian tourists and no longer attracts media attention as the exclusive Communist Party resort.

It was here that many important party conclaves were held and some fateful decisions to "stay or go" for political supremos in Chinese communist hierarchy were made before announcing them to the public from the formal party halls in Beijing.

But when the 2,000-odd members of the all-powerful central committee of the party convene for their annual meeting this month in Beijing, Beidaihe will be hardly mentioned. Its status as a top leadership retreat has been downgraded by party chief Hu Jintao, who has promoted a more egalitarian approach and wants to nurture the party's populist image.

The changes the communist resort has gone through reflect somewhat the changes that the world's largest communist party has seen over the past five years. There are fewer party slogans on its laid-back streets lined up with seafood restaurants and fewer state limousines bringing the whole town to a standstill. And there is a prevailing sense that economic expediency rules the day.

"Back then there were very few foreign tourists and we only served party cadres who had come here for a few days of summer holiday," said shop owner Li Juanxin, whose street corner shop sells parasols, sun hats and local souvenirs made of seashell. "But Russian tourists are good for us, they like shopping and spending money."

Russia's proximity to this northern seaside resort has made its newly affluent tourists Beidaihe's main patrons these days. Russian tour groups have flooded Beidaihe's once heavily patrolled streets, carousing late at night, crowding its seafood eateries overlooking the beach and forcing the locals to learn a few phrases in Russian.

Nowadays, all street signs, shop names and menus are in both Chinese and Russian, reflecting the fact that Beidaihe is no longer immune from new commercial trends.

In August, when state leaders still visit, if not for secret party meetings then for some relaxation, the streets are lined with police who occasionally stop cars and demand identification. But Russian tourists take it all in their stride.

"The security reminds me of the old days in the USSR [the Soviet Union]," said Yuri Gregoriev while relaxing on a chaise-lounge on the beach. "But I don't mind it at all. We all come from different parts of Russia's far east, and to get to any other beach with similarly good weather and warm sea, we would have to travel a long time."

"The food is good even if it is not cheap and the locals seem friendly enough," said Yuri's girlfriend, Masha. "I sort of like the fact that we are guests of a state leaders' resort," she gushes when asked if she minds the intrusive security on the streets.

But Chinese people say that the changes in the Communist Party's style have not brought about the changes they had hoped for.

"I must not complain because our [Beidaihe's] fortunes have been tied to the party's fortunes, but we have not seen much change in the way party leaders deal with corruption and power abuses," said Lao Luo, chef at one of the seafood restaurants lining the main promenade in town. "Everybody is unhappy about it."

As if taking cue from this public mood, the annual party meeting to be held in Beijing from September 15 to 18 will focus on fighting corruption in the ranks following a series of high-profile cases that have provoked widespread anger.

A document on "improving party building" will be tabled at the meeting that will lay out policy aimed at helping the ruling communists cope with the demands of China's development and reform, Xinhua news agency said this week.

"The party should make redoubled efforts to improve the party's work style, build a clean government and fight corruption," Xinhua said.

The plenum will be held only weeks before China marks its 60th anniversary of communist rule on October 1 with a grand military parade in central Beijing.

But preparations for the anniversary have been marred by allegations of graft and nepotism among the ruling elite even as Beijing pulls out all stops to demonstrate its readiness to crack down on abuses.

Last week, Sun Yu, 52, the former vice chairman of the southern Guangxi region, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for taking bribes worth 3.3 million yuan (about US$484,000) and swindling an equal amount from the regional government.

On August 7, Li Peiying, the former head of the company that owns Beijing Capital International Airport, was executed. Li, 60, was convicted of bribery and embezzlement totaling nearly 109.4 million yuan.

In a surprisingly frank editorial this summer, the China Daily newspaper suggested that "after 60 years behind the helm and more than 30 years of preoccupation with the economy, the Chinese Communist party needs to take a serious look and adapt to new conditions".

It added that the rising number of "mass incidents" of social unrest demonstrates an alarming level of public anger with the ruling elite.

In 2007, China reported 80,000 cases of "mass incidents", involving sometimes up to thousands of people. Most of them stemmed from public anger about illegal land seizures or evictions of villagers by local officials making way for development. The figure for 2005 was a significantly lower 60,000 cases.

"The explosion in numbers of 'mass incidents' can be seen as an indicator of the rise of public expectations towards the government," said Wang Erping, who studies social unrest at the Center for Social and Economic Behavior at the Chinese Academy of Science.

The China Daily had a proposal for the party plenum: "If the image-sensitive CCP [Chinese Communist Party] can work out some practical cures for such sources of public discontent as corruption, it surely will see fewer 'mass incidents'."

(Inter Press Service)