Inflatables and politics as China's leaders hit the beach

As holidaymakers crowded beaches at the Chinese seaside resort of Beidaihe, a heightened security presence was the only sign that China's most senior leaders had gathered for their annual talks.

A summer trip to Beidaihe has been part of the Chinese political calendar since the era of Mao Zedong, and this year's takes place ahead of a handover of power that will set the country's course for the next decade.

The Beidaihe talks are never officially acknowledged, but state media recently reported that several top leaders were visiting the town, 285 kilometres (180 miles) from Beijing.

Analysts say the secretive, month-long discussions are especially important this summer as Communist party chiefs prepare to pass the baton to a new generation of leaders in the autumn.

They are also dealing with the fall-out from one of the worst scandals to hit the party in decades -- the downfall of Bo Xilai, an ambitious but divisive politician whose wife confessed in court to murdering a British businessman.

Beidaihe residents told AFP this week security was unusually tight, with roads closed and police performing spot-checks on people entering the town by car or rail.

But for Chinese tourists flocking to the resort's public beaches, discussions centered around the best way to stay afloat in the dull-grey waters of the Bohai Sea: inflatable dolphin or shark?

"The talks are for government officials, they have nothing to do with us ordinary people," said one woman surnamed Meng as she squeezed into a yellow inflatable ring. "We're just here to have fun."

Beidaihe gives politicians a rare chance to meet informally to engage in "lobbying for promotions, appointments and the approval of policies", according to Joseph Cheng, who lectures on Chinese politics at Hong Kong's City University.

"It started as just a holiday destination for China's top leaders," he added, "but it became a place where important decisions were made".

This year's discussions will help determine who gains entry to the Communist party's Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group of leaders who effectively run China, when seven of its nine members stand down this year.

Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to succeed the outgoing President Hu Jintao as the head of the committee before taking over as head of state in 2013, while Vice Premier Li Keqiang is set to take the second highest-ranked position of premier.

Analysts say other vice premiers, Wang Qishan and Li Yuanqiao, who runs the department that approves party appointments, are all but certain to join the committee.

Among those vying for one of the remaining places are Wang Yang, the reformist party head of China's southern manufacturing powerhouse Guangdong, and Shanghai leader Yu Zhengsheng.

Competition is fierce, with speculation that the number of places on the Standing Committee -- which can vary in size -- will be reduced to seven from nine this time around.

Some experts believe the bargaining over positions may be tied to the fate of Bo, currently under investigation for "violating party discipline" as his wife, Gu Kailai, awaits the outcome of her murder trial.

Bo's political career is over, but it remains unclear whether he will face criminal charges relating to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, which four police officers are charged with trying to cover up.

However, analysts say the importance of the summer meetings at Beidaihe has waned under Hu, who ended the practice of having entire government departments moved to the resort for the summer after he became president in 2002.

With the Standing Committee meeting more often, party-watchers say the Beidaihe talks are most important for so-called "party elders" -- retired senior officials who still hope to influence the leadership transition.

Of these, former Chinese president Jiang Zemin is said to hold the greatest influence. Several recent media appearances by Jiang are "a signal that he still wants to influence the selection process", Cheng said.

"Top leaders no longer have time to spend extended periods at Beidaihe," said Bo Zhiyue, a Chinese politics expert at the National University of Singapore, adding that the meetings were "a gesture of respect for party elders".

These days, they can rub shoulders with the Russian tourists with whom Beidaihe is increasingly popular.

There are Russian supermarkets and restaurants serving borscht and battered steak alongside guesthouses with names like North China Grid Company Sanatorium, a legacy from when state enterprises rewarded model workers with holidays.

Crowded public beaches, where tourists pitch tents to shield them from the sun and roadside vendors sell boiled sweetcorn, starkly contrast with empty swathes of sand attached to the villas used by Communist officials.

China's state-run media are barred from reporting on competition among the country's top leaders, and beachgoers responded to news of the political intrigue taking place across the sands with shrugs of indifference.

"I prefer not to think about politics," said a 60-year-old man surnamed Lu, still dripping from a dip in the sea. "I'd rather pay attention to the Olympics."

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