Cooling Off Can Be Chilling

July 02, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- For many Beijingers, summer is a love/hate affair. Freed from the Siberian blasts of winter and the Mongolian windstorms of spring, locals flock outdoors to fly kites, dance or just chat on the street.

But as July rolls around, the combination of humidity and pollution makes city life unbearable.

China's leaders cope by leaving for seaside resorts, while ordinary people try to cool off by taking a swim.

Finding a public swimming pool, however, is a difficult task.

Even in Beijing, China's capital and showcase city, there is only one pool for every 60,000 residents, according to official statistics that don't take into account the dozens of pools available only to privileged cadres or pampered employees of state-run enterprises.

So every year, locals ignore no-swimming notices and plunge into unsupervised lakes, streams, reservoirs or beaches along the coast.

And every year, this search for a cool dip results in dozens of deaths in Beijing -- and thousands of deaths across the country.

"I think swimming is something one learns by instinct," said a young woman about to step into one of Beijing's lakes.

"I've got this safety ring and my friends to keep me from drowning."

For many people that isn't enough. Last year, 47 people drowned in Beijing's lakes and rivers.

National statistics are not available, but estimates by safety officials put the number in excess of 5,000.

That puts swimming in the same danger league as coal mining, in which 11,000 people died last year, or industrial accidents, in which 8,000 died.

The problem highlights the low level of spending on public recreation in China.

While China has lavished money on an elite sports machine that has started dominating the Olympics and other world sporting events, ordinary people enjoy few parks, pools or sports clubs.

When Chinese go out to fly a kite, for example, it's often from the patch of green on an expressway cloverleaf.

Ballroom dancing, which many elderly enjoy, is often practiced under an expressway overpass.

While the lack of public amenities is rarely discussed in China's tightly controlled press, some discreet criticism has taken place.

A couple of articles in Beijing newspapers, for example, have pointed out that many swimming pools in the capital are out of repair or not open to the public.

"For Beijingers, taking a swim is really not an easy matter," was how Beijing Youth Daily put it.

Not all Chinese swim in dangerous areas. Beijing, for example, boasts several excellently staffed swimming pools.

At the Taoranting swimming pool, lifeguard Li Changming says four guards watch the pool at all times.

The guards are recertified every two years, he says, although training does not include cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

But on a hot summer day -- and recent temperatures in Beijing have soared into the 90s -- Taoranting and other big swimming pools hit capacity in the early morning.

And even when open, they can be so full that locals say swimmers look like "boiling dumplings."

This drives many to the unsupervised natural bodies of water, such as the city's lakes or the dams and rivers that dot Beijing's hilly suburbs, or the nearby Pacific coastline.

"The ones that I've heard of drowning are the migrant workers who can't really swim but who want to cool off. They plunge in and after a while get tired and go under," said Guo Jingyang, a 26-year-old regular at Beijing's Beihai park. "They don't realize that the water gets deeper in the center."

Even swimming at lifeguard-patrolled beaches can be fatal because crowds are so heavy that it is difficult to spot someone in trouble.

Compounding the problem is the traditional Chinese aversion to water.

Although Chinese culture developed along the Yellow and Yangtze rivers and most Chinese live along the coast, China has never been a seafaring nation.

Water was something to avoid and appease; few took pleasure in it.

"We had to learn swimming in school, but we hardly got any time in the swimming pool and it was easy to get around the swimming test," a Beijing sociologist said.

"To this day I've never learned how to swim."

Part of China's official Communist orthodoxy has been to build up the physical strength of the Chinese people.

The country is in the midst of a national campaign to improve physical education, with factories and offices allowing 10-minute breaks each day for aerobics, shadow boxing or calisthenics.

According to the government's Outline Plan for the People's Health, the campaign is to "achieve by the year 2010 the harmonious development of physical education and the national socialist economic undertaking."

The physical education campaign, however, has not increased funding for swimming or other sports, according to employees of sports facilities.

"Our staff physician has started seeing patients privately, so he's not here as often as before," said the employee of one large Beijing swimming pool.

"Unfortunately, it's more dangerous to swim than before."

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