China's leadership gathers for secretive summit

China's leadership gathers for secretive summit

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For a seaside resort where nothing is officially happening, the town of Beidaihe in northern China has a lot of security.

There is an armed police checkpoint on the outskirts.

We’re stopped again for another passport check further on.

Uniformed officers are stationed at regular intervals along the roads, their plainclothes colleagues, identifiable by plastic earpieces, standing nearby.

By the beach, among tourists carrying rubber rings, we saw armed paramilitary police.

Image: Communist Party villas near public beaches

No one will confirm it, but they are here to protect China’s Communist Party leadership, thought to be holding its annual secretive summit at the resort.

Mao Zedong started the tradition in the 1950s, with the party elite decamping to the coast to escape the stifling Beijing summer heat, to decide the country’s future in private.

For all the appearance of modernisation in China, in 2017, this is still how power is exercised in the “People’s Republic” – behind high walls and carefully guarded gates.

There is no mention of the meeting in state media.

The only indication it has started is the sudden absence of senior officials from evening news bulletins, and the simultaneous appearance of heavy security on the streets of Beidaihe.

On one side of a long fence is the crowded public beach – on the other, the manicured, private sands of the Communist Party villas.

Beidaihe

Image: Black cars sweep through at speed

At intervals, black cars sweep through at speed, as ordinary traffic is halted to let them pass.

But then we were ordered to stop filming. When I asked why, I was told: “Because we are police.”

More plainclothes security agents followed us along the street, before stopping and questioning us about what we were doing there, and taking our names and passport details.

Beidaihe

Image: Sky’s Katie Stallard was stopped by officers

This is a crucial year for General Secretary Xi Jinping, who appears to be consolidating his personal control ahead of an important party congress this autumn, which will determine the country’s leadership for the next five years.

He may also signal whether he plans to step down in line with the recent convention of serving two terms, which would end in 2022, or intends to stay in power.

At a military parade to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army recently, President Xi appeared, unusually, as the only civilian on the podium, and reviewed the troops in combat fatigues.

President Xi Jinping

Image: China’s President Xi Jinping

“Xi was wearing his commander-in-chief hat both literally and figuratively,” Andrew Polk, co-founder of Trivium China explained.

“This is a very clear signal that Xi is in charge of the army, which is part and parcel of being a powerful leader.

“The message is: I’m in charge of domestic politics, I’m in charge of the military apparatus, the nation is strong, and I am the leader of that strong nation.”

Back in Beidaihe, we found more clues to who was in town on a roundabout, where red characters spelled out: “The Party is in my heart, welcome the 19th Congress.”

There were more warm words for the Party’s leadership on the beach.

Beidaihe

Image: One of the packed public beaches in Beidaihe

“I think it’s quite normal that the government take some measures and they have the right to do this their own way. They do that for our country’s safety and people’s happiness,” one man assured us.

Soaking up the sun nearby, another man told us: “China has thousands of years of history. It needs time to develop, but I think China is getting better and better.”

If Xi Jinping could have heard him on his side of the fence, he would have approved.

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