For China’s political leaders swimming has long been seen as sign of their vitality.
Mao Zedong started the trend in 1966 when he swam the Yangtze River at what was claimed to be a world record pace (see WiC116). Later, Deng Xiaoping was photographed having a dip in the sea at Beidaihe – a beach resort for elite cadres – while Jiang Zemin hit the beach in Hawaii in October 1997, a sign, thought some, that he had consolidated his grip on power after Deng’s death.
When Xi Jinping was set to become president, he swam too. Unfortunately, the consequences were less welcome. As former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa told CNN, Xi hurt his back. This explained his mysterious two-week absence from the public eye in late 2012, an incident which triggered wild rumours in social media (see WiC165), but may instead have been down to something as mundane as Xi’s butterfly stroke.
Lesser Party officials are keen to don trunks as well. Nowhere more so than in Guangzhou where it’s become de rigueur for local cadres to splash the 800 metres across the Pearl River as part of an annual gala showcasing efforts to clean up one of China’s dirtiest rivers. As races go, it’s always been somewhat predictable, mind you. Government officials typically finish ahead of the other 2,000 or so participants, while the city’s Party boss always reaches the opposite riverbank in first place.
The problem this year was that Guangzhou’s supremo Wan Qingliang had been dismissed (for corruption) a month before the swim. The result? Competitors from a local swimming association came first. “The tradition (of officials winning the race) is finally broken,” Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper declared, adding that local media has been checking the rankings for clues about the promotion prospects at city hall. Apparently, the swimming gala is an excellent predictor of success. In 2011 Wan was mayor and made his debut at the event. In an amazing outcome he finished second despite learning to swim only a few days earlier. He would later be promoted to the city’s top Party role. (In 2006 Guangdong governor Huang Huahua, the most senior official braving the river that year, did not win and later became the first governor to resign in the province’s history.)
The predictability of the race has been widely ridiculed. “Government officials should be encouraged to take part in sports events as it draws them closer to the people,” the Legal Daily suggested. “But the coincidence that the Party bosses always come first is an implicit rule of Chinese politics.”
Before his disgrace, Wan was a competitive character, making an effort to win most of the sporting events that he entered. But during Guangzhou’s annual dragon boat race in June, his team finished second to a foreign boat. Prior to that, they’d won the gold medal three years in a row.
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