China hotel's closed doors hide Party intrigue

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BEIJING, Oct 16 (Reuters) China's Communist Party cadres gathering this week for a Congress to name a new generation of leaders are staging their most important meetings in secret in a place with a long history of keeping ordinary people out.

From the outside, Beijing's Jingxi Hotel is a spartan Soviet-style building, partly hidden by a long, featureless wall and tall trees. Uniformed, armed guards man an unassuming gate and there are no signs advertising the hotel's name.

Security is tight, but discreet. Aside from police, men in plainclothes with severe haircuts keep watch on the streets surrounding the hotel, located in a western suburb opposite state television headquarters and near the enormous military museum.

Secrecy is the order of the day.

''There's a big meeting happening inside -- a Congress,'' said a guard, standing outside the hotel's front wall, but refusing to answer other questions with anymore than monosyllabic replies.

Though the opening and closing ceremonies and a few cursory ''open'' meetings with pre-prepared speeches take place in the Great Hall of the People, many of the secret talks to hammer out policy and name lists for promotion will happen at the Jingxi.

Some residents in the leafy alleyways which surround the hotel -- the name of which literally means ''west of the capital'' -- are even less forthcoming.

''I don't know what you're talking about,'' said one elderly man, who refused to give his name, when asked what he thought about such an important meeting happening in his neighbourhood.

''Actually, I do know, but I'm not allowed to say,'' he added slyly when pressed.

From what can be seen from the outside, the hotel is well decked out in preparation for the Congress, China's biggest political meeting in five years.

Huge red characters sit on eaves on either side of the main entrance, reading: ''May the Chinese Communist Party live 10,000 years'' and ''May the People's Republic of China live 10,000 years''.

Inside, it looks like a miniature version of the Great Hall of the People, the ornate monolith facing Tiananmen Square where the parliament, the National People's Congress, holds its largely ceremonial annual meeting.

After it opened in 1964, then-Premier Zhou Enlai hid high-ranking revolutionary veterans in the hotel to protect them during the haotic Cultural Revolution. In the lobby, army guards battled teenage Red Guards who sneaked in via the cafeteria roof.

In more peaceful times since, the hotel, still operated by the general staff of the People's Liberation Army and open only to officials and diplomats, has hosted 44 Party congresses or Central Committee meetings.

The 17th Party Congress this week will formally elect senior leaders and set policy priorities for the next few years. It has been preceded by months of intense jockeying for power, and a tightening of security in the capital.

The Jingxi's overstuffed armchairs arranged in square lines in the red-carpeted meeting rooms would be familiar to anyone who has ever met with Chinese diplomats or ministers.

But cadres would find it hard to leak news of the final leadership selection, even if they wanted to. Mobile phone and text message reception is dicey in the conference halls, perhaps because of the powerful communications equipment mounted outside the buildings.

Reuters SS DB1252

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