Chinese leader skips beach holiday, breaking Mao's tradition

BEIJING — Mao Zedong started the tradition of an annual summer retreat for China's Communist leaders, and for years the nation's most powerful officials have gone each August to the Beidaihe resort along northern China's Bohai Sea.

Mao showed a commanding chop as he swam in front of his photographer, and Deng Xiaoping once dove into the sea in an apparent bid to scotch rumors about his poor health.

But this year, China's new leader, President Hu Jintao, seems intent on projecting a different sort of image: He is not going to the beach.

In what is officially cast as a money-saving move but is also widely seen as an intriguing public-relations gesture, state newspapers have reported that the Beidaihe retreat is being called off this year.

The reports are a bit murky, noting that some older top party officials still might visit the resort for "convalescence," leading some observers to detect another possible motive at work. "It's not simply for image: It could have substantial policy significance," said Dali Yang, a China expert at the University of Chicago.

"At Beidaihe, the informal setting gives more influence to the elders than is generally the case in the more formal policy setting of Beijing," said Yang. "I think it allows him to distance himself a bit from Jiang."

Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemen, 76, stepped down as president but remains head of the military, and he has several elder allies who are seen as potential rivals to Hu.

That might be true, or it just might be that the 60-year-old President Hu doesn't like going to the beach all that much. Among Chinese, Hu is known as something of a technocrat and workaholic and, so far, has made little attempt to show a lighter side to the public.

On state-run television, Hu and his premier, Wen Jiabao, have been shown hard at work and doing serious things, such as opening hospitals or visiting flood-damaged areas. In another gesture seen at trying to bolster a man-of-the-people image, Hu has ordered a dramatic scaling-down of the ornate ceremonies that often have marked the arrivals and departures of China's leaders as they move about the country or go overseas.

As word that their leaders were scrapping the retreat this summer has filtered out, the gesture seems to have drawn some appreciation among Beijingers coping with the sweltering weather here, about 115 miles inland from the cool breezes of Beidaihe.

"I think ordinary people will appreciate it, it looks like they're trying to save some money and be very serious about how they run the country," said Ma Xiaomeng, 20, a computer-science student.

But many seemed unfazed by the news.

"What difference does it make if the man goes to the beach, he's entitled to it," said Li Yang, 49, a housewife. "In America, President Bush seems to be at that ranch of his a lot of the time. I'm sure they're still working, wherever they are."

The Beidaihe retreat does have a long and intrigue-filled history, along with enduring images of Mao and other leaders swimming in the surf.

Mao started coming in the 1950s to the resort, which was developed in the early 1900s for Western merchants and missionaries in China. Beidaihe was not the only place Mao swam: Perhaps his most famous dives were in to the Yangtze River — including one in 1966, accompanied by thousands of young swimmers, an event that some historians mark as the starting point of the Cultural Revolution.

The beach meetings at Beidaihe were largely scrapped during the tumultuous and violent years of the Cultural Revolution, which lasted until the mid-1970s, but they resumed as a regular feature of political life under Deng Xiaoping, who eventually emerged as the country's paramount leader in the leadership struggle that followed Mao's death in 1976.

Over the years, reports sometimes filtered out about maneuvering and infighting at Beidaihe. In 1971, the national army chief, Lin Biao, died in a plane crash after taking off from Beidaihe, setting off rampant speculation that he had been killed by rivals for power.