Swimathon flattery-fest does nothing for river

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 August, 2011, 12:00am


It's been about a month since top officials in Guangzhou made their sixth annual swimathon across the Pearl River, all in the name of convincing the public of the government's winning battle against water pollution. Local residents and media are still relishing their favourite 'significant moments' from the event, few of which concern environmental protection.

A favourite topic in the media and public opinion wash-up is the depths that some civil servants will plumb to flatter their bosses. Guangzhou Daily, mouthpiece of the city's propaganda department, interviewed participants including a young police officer with Guangzhou Public Security Bureau's propaganda office who recounted the swimming prowess of his bosses.

'At the beginning, I was leading but [Guangzhou] Party Secretary Zhang [Guangning] and Mayor Wan [Qingliang] raced past me, one after the other.'

Another swimmer, a staffer from a state-owned media group, told his newspaper he was 'breathless trying to catch up with our party boss, who is a really good swimmer'.

Not surprisingly, 58-year-old Zhang and 48-year-old Wan were the first two senior officials among 800 swimmers to reach the other side.

Official media made much of how Wan- who, it was claimed, couldn't even swim until a couple of weeks before the event- burned the midnight oil to improve his skills. Guangzhou Daily revealed that the mayor practised between 8pm and 1am for 12 days before the swimathon. He then beat many other swimmers- except his boss, of course- to romp home in second place (with the help of a float and other swimmers).

With such athletic achievements to celebrate, it might have been easy for the public to overlook the government's record on improving water quality. Unfortunately, the evidence on that score was not so convincing. Some local media skipped troublesome details like drawing evidence from academic studies, choosing simply to report that all the participants they interviewed, included foreigners, said the water was cleaner than before.

Even these endorsements sounded a bit hollow just hours later when the river was inundated with floating beds of water lettuce - widely regarded by environmental protection specialists as an indicator of poor water quality.

The Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily reported that the plants came from upstream areas such as Foshan, where many small streams were still polluted.

But, as this column has stated before, it's fairly obvious that many residents, and probably many officials, regard the swimathon as a public relations stunt that has no impact on the work of improving the water quality of the Pearl River.

Li Gongming, an outspoken academic at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, called on officials to reconsider the necessity of the event in a column published in a local newspaper a few days after the show.

Li said there were better ways for the authorities to show their determination in handling pollution-related problems. For example, he said officials could reveal how much is spent on environmental protection programmes, how those projects worked and whether they were meeting their objectives.

Most of the public would agree that a 30-minute telethon costing several million yuan every year is meaningless. As some commentators have said, any senior official who praised the cleaner water should live by its banks and smell the stench everyday.

Some members of the public have suggested that the swimathon serves at least one useful purpose: it's a chance to have a good laugh at top leaders' expense. 'They look so funny swimming in the dirty water,' said a staff member at a government-backed institution who did not want to give his name.

Even some delegates to the Guangzhou People's Congress have questioned the need for the swimathon for several years. And every year, some deputy mayors and senior leaders find any excuse not to go. There is speculation over what such officials fear most: the true state of the water, or the public humiliation.

No doubt, Wan himself would be glad to see the event relegated to history. No more five-hour training sessions for him. The nights, after all, are supposed to be spent with family, not for a political stage show that no one cares about.