Chinese do like to be beside the seaside: Workers cool off from the summer heat as leaders turn to intrigue, Teresa Poole writes in Beidaihe

IT IS summer in the city, and even the Chinese Politburo cannot take the heat. At Beidaihe, a seaside resort about 150 miles east of Peking, China's leaders have escaped for a few weeks' well-earned rest and relaxation - and the annual bout of political intrigue.

Like Blackpool and Brighton, this is a resort for party conferences as well as the common man, only this party (the Chinese Communist Party) does not believe in public political debate, preferring to congregate secretly in old colonial villas secluded on a wooded hill. Meanwhile, the common man on his danwei (work unit) summer holiday is kept strictly to his over- crowded end of the golden beach.

Beidaihe has been a tourist resort since 1898 when, during the reign of Emperor Guangxu, foreign diplomats, businessmen and missionaries started building their retreats. The holiday homes of the foreign devils were swiftly appropriated by the revolutionaries; in 1954, the official guide relates, Mao Zedong gazed at the sea from nearby Pigeon Nest Park and composed the poem, Ripples Sifting Sand.

What none of the official tourist brochures cares to explain are the many dark-windowed, imported saloon cars with military number- plates that speed through town, or why the western end of the beach is empty. It seems that, while mystery has traditionally enhanced the authority of Chinese leadership, party chiefs like a dip in the sea.

It was from Beidaihe in 1971 that Lin Biao attempted to escape after his failed plot to overthrow Chairman Mao. (Lin's private airplane never made it to Russia: the official Chinese view that it ran out of fuel and crashed in Mongolia has never been compelling.)

Since 1992, his customised villa has been open to tourists curious to see how the traitor lived during his summers in Beidaihe. Downstairs, there is the 60ft indoor swimming-pool, and two separate sets of rooms for Lin and his wife; they 'did not have good emotions', the guide explained. Upstairs, an exhibition of Lin's counter-revolutionary activities includes an array of telephone tapping equipment used by the doomed conspirators.

The other leadership villas remain strictly off-limits. The end of the public beach is marked by a colonial beach house with a man and a telescope. A group of youths in beach clothes, looking tougher than the average Chinese tourist, lounges under the verandah. One of them explains pleasantly that this part of the beach is reserved for the 'country's leaders'.

The beach may be out of bounds, but a public road runs parallel to the sea, between the hillside villas and the sands. Beidaihe's No 5 public bus takes this route to and from the railway station.

The only other motor vehicles are black military Mercedes and police motorbikes. Every few hundred yards down this nearly-empty road, a well-guarded driveway stretching up into the woods is marked by a set of traffic lights. There is no doubt who has the right of way.

Yet no high-wire fences guard this summer court of China's present-day dynasty. The most likely threat to those inside the villas comes not from the outside world, but from their fellow party comrades. It is here, every summer, that the Standing Committee of the Politburo and senior government figures decide the policies that will emerge later in the autumn, and guard their backs against political rivals.

Last year, after weeks out of the public eye with a 'bad cold' (actually heart problems), the Prime Minister, Li Peng, marked his physical and political comeback with a photo opportunity on Beidaihe beach in swimming trunks. It made the front page of the People's Daily.

In previous years, China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was also shown taking the plunge at Beidaihe. On the eve of his 90th birthday next Monday, Deng is too frail to swim and no one is telling if he made the journey to the seaside this August.

The average Chinese holiday- maker probably does not care. About half the millions of visitors come with their work units. Beidaihe claims 159 'sanatoriums', actually hotels owned by the likes of the Railway Ministry or the Tianjin Hardware Factory. Groups of elderly cadres in matching swimming-costumes wade together into the crowded sea, rubber-rings around their girths. The more adventurous try the beach photographers who offer ball dresses and military uniforms for that special holiday snap.

(Photograph omitted)