Go with the flow – that’s the motto when it comes to politicians swimming in Chinese rivers.
As WiC has mentioned before, Mao Zedong was partial to a river dip himself, culminating in a famous outing on the Yangtze.
After a year out of the public view, he was suddenly back in the headlines in 1966, having powered nine miles downstream in just over an hour. The Chinese press reported it euphorically; Western media was suspicious of what looked like a world-record time. And from a 73 year-old too…
In fact, the pace was so quick that Mao was soon being invited to compete internationally. One such request arrived from Canada: “We are told that you swam nine miles in the excellent time of 1 hour 5 minutes,” congratulated the World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation. “This should put you in line for the championships…since the record for the 10 mile Quebec swim, set last year by one of the fastest swimmers in the world…was four hours 35 minutes”.
The sceptics were missing the point. The swim had been stage-managed, sure enough. But Mao’s time counted for little compared with the political theatre of the river plunge, which was designed to demonstrate his continuing vitality.
Similarly, we need to keep our eye on the symbolism (rather than the immediate outcome) of another high profile swim, this time in the southern city of Guangzhou last Saturday.
In the sixth year of an annual event showcasing the ongoing clean up of the Pearl River, more than 2,000 locals competed in the 800 metre race.
WiC commends their courage. Although China News Service points out that the Guangzhou government will invest Rmb5.5 billion in clean-up activities this year, there is still some way to go before the Pearl can be classed as safe for swimming.
Apparently, the classification of water quality has recently gone up a notch, although the South China Morning Post thought that the new level suggests suitability for factory usage, and not for the front crawl.
One race participant revealed that the river was still so murky that he could not see his fingers in front of him as he swam.
With an unlikely venue came an unlikely result: Guangzhou mayor Wan Qingliang came second in the race, despite learning to swim only a few days before. It was a tremendous effort, thought local Party secretary Zhang Guangming. “You deserve to be our role model for succeeding in mastering swimming skills in such a short time,” he told his junior colleague.
Zhang could afford to be magnanimous, as he had just won the race himself.
Pausing long enough only to de-mist their goggles, fellow racers then queued up to laud Zhang’s achievement. Fairly typical was an executive from China Southern Power Grid, who confided to the Guangzhou Daily that trying to keep up had left him “short of breath”.
Others were less impressed with the race order, including Yuan Weishi, a local academic. It was typical for officials to “spare no effort to avoid stealing the limelight from their superiors, even in a game,” Yuan noted on his weibo.
WiC has to agree that Wan’s silver medal might not stand up to scrutiny. To his credit, the mayor admitted that he couldn’t have even completed the race “without the help of flotation materials”.
No such support was needed for Mao back in 1966, of course. And it sounds like he could have swum even faster, having stopped at one point to advise a local lady on her backstroke.
This led to “spasms of cheers” from the riverbank, from spectators already overcome by the significance of the day’s events. “Our respected and beloved leader Chairman Mao is in such wonderful health”, the newspapers reported. “This is the greatest happiness for… revolutionary people throughout the world.”
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