Working Vacation on the Beach

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The ritual begins each July. China's senior leaders slip away to Beidaihe on the Bohai coast to escape the heat of Beijing and plot strategy for the coming year. Just as surely, packs of foreign journalists descend on the resort town to cover the action. They see nothing, of course. The leaders, who usually travel the 300 km from Beijing in comfortable limos, hunker down at Beidaihe in secluded, heavily guarded villas. The journalists have to rely on rumor and intuition to divine what the cadres are discussing on the beach and around the bridge table. Beidaihe, an American diplomat once said, is China's 'smoke-filled room.' So imagine my surprise when, in July 1987, I actually stumbled into a pair of senior leaders. Li Ruihuan, then Tianjin's mayor and a rising Communist Party star, had been hosting Wan Li, then vice premier, at dinner. They had dined at Kiessling, an Austrian-style pastry shop and restaurant that has lasted in Beidaihe for an improbable six decades. During their three-hour meal, the two men sampled a bit of everything: steak, several types of seafood, salad, vanilla ice cream. Then they popped out of the restaurant and directly into my sight. It was so unexpected that my reportorial instincts faltered. How was Kiessling? I spluttered. Great, said Li with a broad smile. I tried to keep the conversation alive: Um, how are things going at Beidaihe? Great! Li roared, and led his guest toward a waiting car before I could get in another tough question. O.K., not a huge scoop. But I'd accomplished what had seemed futile even to imagine: I'd actually witnessed China's bigwigs in the flesh in this quasi-mythical setting. They still come to Beidaihe each year to meet in secret and map out policy for the National People's Congress to rubber stamp later, in public view. The official Xinhua news agency routinely transmits photos of Politburo members letting their hair down: frolicking in the surf, lying on the beach, watching grandchildren build sandcastles. The tradition developed partly because of Mao's fondness for swimming. As he did for so many of his passions, he wrote a poem about Beidaihe: No fishing boats ... Are seen on the boundless ocean/ Where are they gone? (Don't ask the journalists.) Though Beidaihe has long been a communist favorite, its background is strictly bourgeois. At the turn of the century it became a choice holiday spot for Western missionaries, tourists and businessmen living and working in Beijing and Tianjin. After the communists prevailed in 1949, it became the country's most important political retreat, a kind of Chinese Camp David by the sea. A few model workers and their families also earned the right to enjoy Beidaihe's beaches. Strict hierarchies prevailed, though. The beach was carved up--literally, with rope lines--according to one's status: foreigners here, model workers there, cadres a bit farther down. Signs advised locals to wear dark swimsuits, to avoid the illusion of nudity.Beidaihe's most notorious resident was surely Lin Biao, Mao's onetime heir apparent. Lin spent summers in a gray, two-story villa known as Building No. 69. He was deathly afraid of excessive sunlight, so his villa was fitted with thick wooden shutters and the curtains were drawn all day long. In 1971, apparently after a failed coup attempt, Lin ordered a British-made Trident jet sent to Beidaihe's airport. Lin and some family members took off in the plane, but it crashed in Mongolia several hours later with no survivors. The affair is still a mystery: rumors initially spread that, before the plane took off, Premier Zhou Enlai had strangled Lin to death in a villa. It has never been easy to get the real story in Beidaihe.