Every summer Chinese newspapers are filled with tales of drowning. They might involve a lone child in a lake, a group of teenagers at a reservoir, or a family by a river.
According to the National Health and Family Planning Commission some 57,000 people drown every year – a figure that does not include those who perish in floods or water transport accidents.
That’s more than 150 a day.
For comparison the daily average in the US is 10.
Part of the reason is that only a small number of Chinese can swim. Accurate numbers are difficult to come by but in 2014 the National Survey of Physical Activity suggested that just 2.8% of children listed swimming as something they did in their free time.
Experts and swimming coaches estimate the number of people who have any swimming experience at less than 40%. The general feeling is that water is dangerous and should therefore be avoided. Those that can swim (perhaps most famously Chairman Mao, who used his dips to make major political statements) are considered particularly brave or special.
Yet the summers are hot in China and for those in poor and rural areas, the country’s lakes and reservoirs offer a cheap, thrilling way to cool off.
More than 60% of those that drown every year are children, says Wang Bin, who has researched the topic at Central China Normal University in Wuhan.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says drowning is now the number one killer of Chinese children under the age of fourteen.
Few schools in China teach swimming and the official safety syllabus stresses one thing – stay away from water.“We have a saying that good swimmers still drown and good riders are still thrown,” said Mu Yadong, who produces the material for China’s safety curriculum.
Part of the issue is that drowning has yet to become a pressing social issue, possibly because it is the rural, “left-behind kids” – and not the more vocal middle classes – who are most affected.
One such victim was 13 year-old Xia Wenjun who grew up on the banks of Lake Chao in eastern Anhui province. Her parents were migrant workers and she was raised by her grandfather.
Despite growing up around water Xia was never taught to swim.
She drowned in late August when she and a friend fell into the lake. Their bodies were only recovered when they washed up 12 days later.
Her grandfather says barely anyone in the village can swim and he wants the government to put up signs warning people not to go near the lake, as well as fences.
But the local authorities have other ideas – they are improving access to Lake Chao and building a beach volleyball court to attract tourists from a nearby city.
Perhaps this highlights another dimension to the problem: the issue of social inequality. In the cities there are swimming pools where people can pay to learn to swim. In rural areas where there are almost no pools and people do not have the disposable income to spend on classes anyway.
“Many Chinese people think of swimming as a luxury – a way to stay fit or have fun, not an important life skill. This kind of thinking needs to change. Swimming should be considered as a basic skill that everyone needs to learn,” says Professor Wang of CCNU.
In Beijing, more parents are paying for their kids to learn to swim, and they often splash out as much as Rmb450 ($67.46) an hour for one-on-one classes because they worry about their kid drowning in a group class.
Meanwhile, there has also been a surge in those in their twenties and thirties learning to swim, so they can enjoy themselves while on exotic beach holidays.
“They often come [for swimming lessons] when they have plans to go to places like Bali,” says Wang Sai, a coach at a luxury gym, who says young women are particularly keen to learn. “They know if they don’t learn to swim they will end up sitting on the beach by themselves,” he adds.
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