Police Swoop on Activists As China's Leaders Gather at Beidaihe Resort

The leaders' summer retreat paves the way for policy and personnel changes at a formal meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party later in the year.

A police officer patrols a street in the coastal resort town of Beidaihe on northeast China's Bohai Sea, where the ruling Chinese Communist Party is holding an annual political retreat, August 2018.

Authorities in northern China have detained a number of rights activists and petitioners after they traveled to a resort town where the ruling Chinese Communist Party is holding an annual political retreat.

Police in the seaside resort of Beidaihe, where the party is discussing affairs of state behind closed doors, have detained and sent home petitioners and rights activists from as far afield as the southeastern province of Fujian and the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Beijing petitioner Zhang Yuexiu said she was detained after she tried to visit the resort for a vacation on Thursday.

"We went to Beidaihe on vacation, and got a room there," Zhang told RFA. "Then, a bunch of police came calling when I was taking a shower at around 10 p.m."

"They checked our ID and told us to cooperate and go with them, because there was a problem with our ID, because we were petitioners," she said. "We refused to go with them."

China's leaders typically spent around two weeks beginning in early August on an unofficial annual retreat at the beach resort, where much of the preparation for the Communist Party's annual congress takes place.

Zhang said police from Beijing had later showed up at 6 a.m. and forced her to return home under escort, where she was taken to her local police station.

"They insisted that I make a statement, or they wouldn't let me go," she said.

Petitioners, many of whom are forced evictees, victims of official corruption and farmers who have lost land to development projects, typically gather around key political events in the hope that their cases will receive a more favorable hearing.

Highly coordinated crackdown

But this year's crackdown appears to be highly coordinated using the nationwide "stability maintenance" system, with many petitioners and activists prevented even from leaving home during the secretive meeting.

Rights activist Yu Yunfeng from the northeastern city of Harbin said local police had prevented him from boarding a train to Beidaihe on Wednesday.

"We had already set out, but before we had even boarded the train, the city police were calling us the whole time, so we switched our phones off," Yu said. "But they were waiting for us, and they brought us right back again."

Fujian-based rights activist Sun Tao said he and fellow petitioners are considered "sensitive persons" under the stability maintenance system that targets government critics.

"Quite a few petitioners from Fuzhou have been brought back after they tried to go on vacation in recent days," Sun told RFA. "Some weren't even allowed to travel through [Beidaihe]."

"They just stopped them from going any further. What is there to say about it? Stability trumps everything," he said.

Economic issues including the current trade war with the United States and a 16 trillion-yuan (U.S. $2.3 trillion) domestic investment plan look set to dominate this year's meeting, amid growing indications of opposition to President Xi Jinping's indefinite presidency, anonymous sources told RFA.

"Now that we are confronted with a Sino-U.S. trade war, the economy is the most important issue ... stabilizing the economy and the financial system," an anonymous academic said in a recent interview.

"There is majority support [in party ranks] for compromise on China's part," the academic said.

Beijing economist Hu Xingdou agreed, saying the leadership is keen to avoid an economic downturn.

"The only way forward is to increase domestic investment and consumption," Hu said. "In particular, the investment environment for private enterprises should be improved, as well as the situation of ordinary consumers."

Hu estimated the total spending boost at around 16 trillion yuan, including investments already made this year.

Sidelining the cabinet

Xi also appears to be responding to internal pressure to share a little of his power among fellow members of the Politburo standing committee, putting premier Li Keqiang at the head of a newly created Science and Technology Leading Group coordinating much of the investment plan in science and technology.

Former Xinhua news agency reporter Jiang Weiping, who fled to Canada after being accused of endangering national security, said many in government felt that Xi had sidelined China's cabinet, the State Council, which had previously been responsible for implementing most of party policy via the bureaucracy.

"There have been some changes to the status of Li Keqiang lately," Jiang said. "He was completely marginalized a while back, and just became a camp follower."

"Now I think that the Communist Youth League faction [of former president Hu Jintao] is getting a little stronger ... but not to the extent that will affect Xi Jinping's position as core leader," he said.

Reported by Yang Fan and Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Ma Lap-hak for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.