In his first trip as the Communist Party chief, Xi Jinping headed south in December and visited a section of the Donghaochong canal in downtown Guangzhou.
An expensive showpiece of Guangzhou's green initiatives, the canal was "cleaned up" in 2010 as part of a massive urban renewal project, turning a heavily polluted area into a neighbourhood park at a cost of more than one billion yuan (HK$1.25 billion). It has since been visited by other leaders such as former president Hu Jintao and former premier Wen Jiabao .
However, official tests by the Guangzhou Environmental Protection Bureau that were released to the public for the first time last month show the water quality of Donghaochong rated "worse than Grade 5", meaning the pollution was beyond the limits of the five-level scale. The canal now stands as an embarrassing epitome of the failed ambitions of Guangzhou authorities to clean up the city's waterways, despite massive spending.
In early 2009, city officials embarked on a series of projects worth 48 billion yuan. They were intended to "fundamentally improve the city's water environment" by June 2010, five months ahead of the Asian Games held there.
But among all of the 31 canals running through downtown Guangzhou, only one is now flowing with water that barely reaches grade five standards, according to the latest official findings.
And those findings have prompted bitter questions posed by local newspapers, asking whether the cash splashed on 581 clean-up projects was a total waste.
A report in the mainland-based China Times wrote: "48.6 billion yuan in less than 18 months - that's roughly equivalent to squandering 100 million yuan every day … Where has the money gone?"
Guangzhou authorities have not publicly released detailed expenditures of the 581 projects and have been reluctant to deliberate on any lessons that could be drawn from the failures. Meanwhile, the city's water bureau is already considering a new round of projects to cleanse the waterways, The Southern Metropolis Daily reported.
Some experts have also questioned the effectiveness of the clean-up plan, which was rushed to meet a tight deadline with political significance, and which did not have its feasibility thoroughly studied and debated.
Li Pingri , a researcher with the Guangzhou Institute of Geography, told The Southern Metropolis Daily that the project was too ambitious, given its timetable, and that it lacked a long-term and comprehensive plan.
In the case of Donghaochong, about 1.04 billion yuan was spent between 2009 and 2010 on a canal section spanning just 1,890 metres.
Simply put, the "clean-up" effort was intended to cut off untreated run-off water upstream, and also pump water from the Pearl River to fill the canal section that runs through downtown Guangzhou, the China Times reported.
A large portion of the money was also spent on constructing the neighbourhood park and green belts along the section - the visible accomplishments that officials could take credit for.
Professor Li Shiyu of the Guangzhou-based Sun Yat-sen University said the entire clean-up scheme failed to address the source of the problem - sewage discharged from upstream. As a result, during heavy storms, the untreated water from upstream could easily flood the Donghaochong section, bringing sludge, making maintenance work even more difficult.
One week before Xi's visit in December, nearby residents said every rock in the Donghaochong was picked up and scoured using high-pressure water sprays to get rid of the sludge and prevent the canal from stinking.
Despite the disappointing results, Guangzhou authorities have planned to expand the clean-up scheme with more projects and more funding to other sections along the canal, as well as the city's other waterways. Local media reports estimated that the total investment in the entire 4.5-kilometre Donghaochong canal will reach about 2.5 billion yuan.
The reality is that the waterways in Guangzhou have been clean only during short periods of time, such as for the Asian Games, when production at 70 factories in the city was also halted, the China Times reported.
This type of short-lived success provides some food for thought. If Guangzhou authorities really want to clean up canals in the city, rather than simply increasing the investment figures, they should reconsider their project plans.