Communists in the Imperial Palace: China’s Secret Power Center


The former garden of the imperial palace in central Beijing has been the headquarters of the communist party since Mao’s revolution. China’s leadership lives and reigns behind the red walls.

A 13-year-old boy is caught by a pack in a Beijing courtyard. They tie him up, put him on a pedestal and throw stones at him. Before that, they stormed his family’s house and caught his mother. They also force her to throw stones at her son. After that, the boy’s big sister is led onto the pedestal. Just a few hours after the harassment, she takes her own life.

It is a mild evening in May 1966, the first year of the Chinese dictatorship Mao Zedong proclaimed cultural revolution. A time when Mao is turning his followers, the Red Guard, on anyone they deem elitist, traditional, or anti-Communist. The boy they targeted that day is called Xi Jinping.

As the son of a former confidant of Mao, he was sheltered at party headquarters Zhongnanhai grew up, the former imperial gardens. Children like Xi are called “princelings” in China. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao saw them as enemies because they grew up in an elitist environment.

Today, Xi Jinping himself is the master of Zhongnanhai. Heavily guarded and sealed off from the public, he lives and works there together with the rest of the Chinese leadership elite – it couldn’t be more elitist.

Built by Genghis Khan’s grandson

The almost three square kilometer site has been a place of power since the High Middle Ages. In the 12th century, Emperor Zhangzong of the Northern Jin Dynasty had an artificial lake dug here, which today is divided into a northern (Zhonghai) and southern (Nanhai) part and gives it its name.

Conquered only a few decades later Genghis Khan with its Mongolian hordes large parts of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and all of China. When the world empire collapsed after his death, his grandson claimed Kublai Khan most of today’s China for himself and crowned himself as the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty. Because of its proximity to Mongolia, he decided on Beijing as the capital and built a huge palace complex in the center, into which he also integrated the lake.

Today the palace as Forbidden City Known because the Chinese people were not allowed to enter the walled complex in imperial times. It is now the most visited tourist attraction in the country.

REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The famous Xinhuamen, the “Gate of New China”, is the main entrance to Zhongnanhai.

Communists in the Imperial Garden

After the communists took Beijing towards the end of the civil war in 1949, Mao is said to have resisted establishing their power center in the Forbidden City. He does not want to be equated with the decadent, past emperors.

His closest confidant, the future prime minister Zhou Enlai, is said to have suggested in a passionate speech that the party headquarters be moved to Zhongnanhai. The facility would provide the necessary space and security for a seat of government, Zhou argued. Provided with appropriate symbolism, it would also serve as a constant sign of victory over the monarchy.

Thus, today at every entrance, communist mottos are emblazoned in hard, golden characters under magnificent, imperial decorations.