China's rulers go swimming with sharks

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Reform and opening up in China has its limits, and never more so than when the country's top leaders take their summer holidays. Over the past few days, the most powerful men in China have disappeared en masse, exchanging the oppressive climate of the capital city for the heat of political intrigue at the seaside resort of Beidaihe, about 150 miles east of Peking.

There, closeted in well-guarded villas on a wooded hillside, the final tussle is under way to decide who gets what jobs at this autumn's 15th Communist Party Congress. After difficult morning conclaves, the leaders may like to venture out to sun themselves on the very exclusive western seafront, cordoned off from the masses for use only by the high and mighty.This is one resort where there is more shark-like cunning on the beach than in the water.

Like the Black Sea holidays enjoyed by the former Soviet Union party bosses in a bygone era, the annual group trip by China's leaders to Beidaihe means that no one is worrying what his colleagues are up to behind his back. At issue this year are jobs, titles and status. Full party congresses take place only once every five years, and this autumn's will have the added edge of coming just seven months after the death of Deng Xiaoping, aged 92.

Mr Jiang's goal at Beidaihe is to secure his position as the core of the leadership which will lead China into the 21st century. That means getting his chosen personnel elected to the new standing committee of the politburo, the politburo itself, and the central committee. It also means deciding who will take over from Mr Li as Prime Minister in March 1998, and what to do with Qiao Shi, the powerful head of the National People's Congress, and Mr Jiang's main political antagonist.

As always at this time of year, the rumour mill is working overtime. Zhu Rongji, the 68-year-old deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, is currently tipped for the prime ministership, a move which would be welcomed in the international arena where he is viewed as the most able Chinese politician. That leaves the problem of finding a suitable new post for Mr Li. The outgoing prime minister is believed to be eyeing Mr Qiao's job, but that just creates the problem of how to keep Mr Qiao happy.

China's most powerful body, the seven-member standing committee of the politburo, may be expanded to nine people - but only if everyone can agree on who should get the extra positions. The military will keep its seat at the table, though 81-year-old General Liu Huaqing is likely to be replaced by the younger General Zhang Wannian.

All this is unlikely to be absorbing much conversation time among Beidaihe's other holiday-makers, the tens of thousands of mostly state employees to be found on the public beaches towards the east end of the seafront. As China's future leadership is mapped out behind closed doors just up the road, their main concern is finding a big enough space to spread their towels on the overcrowded beach.