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BEIJING – In a ritual of summer, China's leaders have been holding an unofficial retreat at a beach resort ahead of a key fall Communist Party congress at which President Xi Jinping will launch his second five-year term as party chief and move to cement his status as China's most powerful leader in decades.
The absence of top leaders from state media reports is a general indication that the secretive Beidaihe retreat is underway. In a hint that leaders have gathered at the resort's quiet beaches and closely guarded guest houses, the official Xinhua News Agency last week carried an account of a meeting at the resort between party propaganda boss Liu Yunshan and a group of vacationing technical experts.
The strength of Xi's position likely means the goings-on this year on the coast east of Beijing will be even tamer than usual, analysts say.
Xi, 64, has been shoring up his authority and sidelining rivals, leaving him primed to install allies in top positions and press his agenda of tightened state control and muscular diplomacy. That appears to include a push to insert his thoughts on theoretical matters into the party constitution and further cultivate a burgeoning cult of personality that could allow him to hold on to power beyond his second term.
"The nuance this time is that there is much less 'trading' among various factions and more obsequious affirmation of the supreme leader's supremacy," said Miles Yu Maochun, an expert on Chinese politics at the U.S. Naval Academy.
At the fall party congress, Xi is expected to deliver a keynote address as a prelude to having his take on theory written into the party constitution during the event, analysts believe. If indeed the case, the move's significance would be that predecessor Hu Jintao was able to insert his theory only upon leaving office.
A government spokesman, State Council Information Office Director Jiang Jianguo, seemed to talk up that likelihood with fulsome praise for Xi's theories in recent comments to reporters.
"It is a narrative that has been mastered by the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people and become familiar to every ordinary Chinese. It has also become a force that can change the world," Jiang said. "It is only natural for us to summarize this system of thought in a more accurate and scientific way."
Jiang also sought to quash talk of a cult of personality around Xi, calling him a "modest and prudent man."
"In the face of issues, he'd like to be the student first and learn from the people," Jiang said.
The son of a famed communist elder, Xi rose through the ranks to the position of Shanghai's party leader before being promoted to the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee in 2007.
When Xi did assume the top spot in 2012, it was as head of a reduced seven-member committee on which he had only one reliable ally, veteran Wang Qishan. He put Wang in charge of a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown that helped Xi eliminate challengers, both serving and retired, and cow potential opponents.
Xi, whose titles include head of the armed forces, has lavished attention on the military with parades and defense budget increases. But he's also led a crackdown on abuses and a push to cut 300,000 personnel from the 2.3 million-member People's Liberation Army, underscoring his ability to prevail against entrenched interests.
At the same time, Xi has added to his resume additional titles as leader of more than a half dozen special commissions overseeing areas from national security to foreign policy. In a move carrying enormous symbolic weight, Xi last year took on the mantle of "core" of the party leadership, elevating him above his peers in a manner redolent of communist China's founder, Mao Zedong.
Whether deliberate or not, moves by Xi seem designed to minimalize predecessor Hu's place in history. Xi has already presided over three major military parades, as opposed to Hu's one over his entire tenure as president. Even the newest generation of China's high-speed rail trains are now called "rejuvenation" — a term that features prominently in Xi's calls to realize the "Chinese Dream" of prosperity and strength. Older trains were named "harmonious" — a key Hu byword.
Xi has also succeeded in constricting Premier Li Keqiang's traditional role of overseeing the economy through the appointment of his own advisers, while gutting the power of the China Youth League faction to which both Li and Hu belong.
Such moves are "a sign that no one in the party can challenge Xi's authority," said Chen Daoyin, a political scientist at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Those who fail to pledge themselves to Xi's leadership do so at their peril, Chen said.
That ensures Xi a free hand in making new appointments to the Politburo Standing Committee.
Chief among his allies are Chen Min'er, who last month was appointed to run the mega-city of Chongqing after predecessor Sun Zhengcai — previously seen as a top leader in waiting — was placed under investigation for corruption. Chen could be joined on the standing committee by Beijing party chief Cai Qi, who has also enjoyed rapid promotion under Xi. Key aides within the party, most notably chief of staff Li Zhanshu, are also tipped for higher office, while there is speculation that Wang, the corruption-buster, will be retained.
In several cases, those moves would defy loosely defined party norms regarding necessary work experience. Retaining Wang, who is due for retirement under existing precedents, would also be a break from tradition.
That has fueled speculation that Xi may be eyeing a third term as party chief, breaking with the two-term limit roughly established by Hu and his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Those moves have cast Xi as a disruptor, not afraid to disregard precedent and do things his own way, while keeping rivals off balance with a lack of clarity about promotions and processes. That's likely to disappoint those hoping for a stronger, rules-based system and greater transparency.
"The message to be delivered at Beidaihe regarding personnel arrangements is just a notice to tell everyone what Xi has decided, regardless of whether you're in agreement or not," Chen said.
Associated Press writer Gillian Wong and researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report.